Thursday, February 25, 2010
Interview with Filmmaker Maude Michaud
Born and raised in Montreal, Maude Michaud has been involved in various artistic activities – including music, theatre, dance, writing, and photography – for most of her life. When she was 14, upon spending a summer watching Reservoir Dogs and other indie hits from the ‘90s, Maude decided that she wanted to become a filmmaker.
She produced, wrote, directed and acted in her first short film, Finding Hope, which was screened as part of the official selection of the International Teen Movie Festival in Toronto. The following year, she directed her first horror short, Spirits, which screened at the same festival. She then enrolled in the Communication Studies undergraduate program at Concordia University where she got a hands-on training in film and video. She is currently directing her first feature length documentary on women and horror films as part of her master thesis in the Media Studies program at Concordia University.
Over the years, she independently wrote, directed and produced over 15 short films and video projects. In addition to the aforementioned film festival, her films also screened as part of the Young Cuts Festival (Montreal & Toronto), the Wreck-Beach Film Festival (Barrie, Ontario), the Short Film Corner during the Cannes Film Festival (Cannes, France), and the Montreal Fetish Film Festival. In 2004, she was a finalist for the Jeunes Cinéastes (young filmmakers) contest for which one of her films won the best original music award.
Even though she is a huge horror fan, she loves to explore a variety of genres in the films she directs, which results in an eclectic body of work including: horror dramas, slightly surreal quirky tales, and explorations of unconventional relationships. She also works as a photographer and, occasionally, as a director of photography.
Fatally Yours: How did you fall in love with the horror genre?
Maude Michaud: My love for the horror genre began when I was a kid. I don’t know why, but I was always attracted to dark and creepy stories, so I never missed an episode of the show Are You Afraid of the Dark? and was an avid reader of the Goosebumps series (and any other similar books). Contrary to most kids my age, I was not scared by the content, I wanted more! Then, one afternoon, I watched Poltergeist III on cable TV (I think I was 9 at the time) and this marked the true beginning of my long love story with the horror genre! I started watching every single horror films I could get my hands on and I became totally hooked on the genre!
Fatally Yours: What does “horror” mean to you?
Maude Michaud: I find that “horror” means different things at different moments in my life. It used to be about confronting my fears and getting an adrenaline rush or about making me uncomfortable and testing the limits of what I was able to watch. Right now, I feel true horror is all about pushing psychological boundaries and giving in to our deepest, darkest urges. We all have really sick ideas crossing our minds at some point or another, so I ask myself: what if we followed up on these ideas? To me this is truly horrific because there are no limits to the human psyche and how sick or twisted someone can be. If you can think it, then most likely other people are also thinking the same thing (or worse) and maybe even doing it! It takes you away from fiction because it has the potential to be real. I find this kind of horror that slowly creeps up on you much more effective than formulaic films that look like they’re made to show off special f/x! Of course I do enjoy almost all subgenres of horror, but in order to be truly bothered or horrified there need to be a twisted psychological or human nature element involved.
Fatally Yours: How and when did you become involved in the horror industry?
Maude Michaud: When I turned 16, I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker, so I wrote and directed my first short film using my father’s handycam. It was a really lame ghost story shot with no budget and no special f/x in my parents’ house with friends acting in it. I loved the experience, but realized that if I really wanted to make a good horror film, I’d have to get more varied filmmaking experience. I went to film school and kept making short films projects on the side, but I couldn’t find any like-minded people who loved the genre enough to work on projects with me. As a result, I put my horror ideas on the back burner and started experimenting with other genres. Then, fast-forward to a couple of years later, I decided to rework one of these ideas and made Recessed with the help of my friend and longtime collaborator Sandra Lombardi. The end result rekindled my love for the genre and convinced me I was finally ready to try my hand at horror again! Since then, I’ve continued to experiment with the genre and tried to contribute as much as I can to horror-related events by getting my films screened and collaborating on various projects.
Fatally Yours: I’ve had the pleasure to see two of your short films, Snuff and Recessed, and was impressed by how much you accomplished and conveyed through mood and atmosphere (both shorts had none to very little dialogue). What inspired the creepy, dark stories of both films and what draws you to the darker side of life in general?
Maude Michaud: I do like to keep the dialogue to a minimum in my projects. One of my film teachers used to say: “Remember the basic rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell. Cinema is a visual medium.” It influenced my way of thinking about films, so whenever I think of a story, I focus on how the story unfolds visually first, then worry about what needs to be said (or not) after.
In the case of Snuff, I was inspired by the medium itself (8mm black and white film) and the urban legends surrounding the idea of snuff films; I thought it would be interesting to use this specific type of film stock to create a fake ‘snuff’ film – with a twist at the end! The inspiration behind Recessed is a tad more complex. At the time, I was really into Japanese ghost films, especially how they use everyday moments and domestic spaces as a menace for the characters, so that inspired some of the creepy parts of the film. I also really like the idea of telling the story from the madman’s perspective and exploring the human psyche, which is what Recessed essentially is. I just love to leave things open-ended and let the audience decide how they want to interpret what it all means. Don’t get me wrong, I do have an explanation for what happens in Recessed, but I much prefer to know what people make of it as I’ve heard so many different interesting theories! I guess I could sum up by saying that many things draw me to the darker side of life, but there seem to be recurring patterns such as the uncanny, the darker side of the human psyche, and playing with people’s expectations.
Fatally Yours: Can you tell us about your upcoming films Hollywood Skin (selected as part of the Viscera Film Festival) and your documentary about women in horror?
Maude Michaud: Of course! I made Hollywood Skin for an anthology project helmed by director Lis Fies and titled I Hate L.A. (as the title suggests, the different segments have to deal with a negative aspect of life in L.A.). Inspired by my previous short film Reflection (which is a segment of the Frankenstein Unlimited anthology) in which the main character is the one inflicting the horror upon herself, I decided to follow a similar line of thought with Hollywood Skin. It’s a very introspective story centered on the main character’s descent into madness as she becomes so obsessed with her body image that she sees only one solution: self plastic surgery.
As for the documentary project (which will also serve as my master’s thesis project), I started it because I felt that women in horror were underrepresented (if not completely absent) from academic literature and mainstream media. As a woman who loves horror, I felt conflicted reading feminist critiques of the genre; was it possible to call oneself a feminist AND love horror films? I got started researching women actively working in the horror industry and started interviewing them to get their thoughts on the genre, their opinions of feminist critique, and how (if) they try to change the genre through their work. As I keep meeting more and more female filmmakers, writers, journalists, etc, the project keeps increasing, so I’m starting to seriously reconsider the scope of the documentary! I can say it is slowly transforming into a series of shorter documentary segments that will allow me to cover a wider variety of topics! I’m aiming to release the first segment this summer, but in the meantime you can visit the temporary website (http://www.bloodybreasts-documentary.tk/) to get more information!
Fatally Yours: Many (though not all) horror films feature violence that’s explicitly shown against women. Why do you think violence against women has usually been shown more explicitly than violence against men?
Maude Michaud: I think a lot of it has to do with stereotypes that are the backbone of cinema: men are often represented as being the heroes while women are typically the ones needing to be rescued. Horror films do play with these stereotypes by usually killing off characters regardless of their gender and by offering women the heroic role of the ‘final girl’. However, it is true that even though men get killed almost as often as women do, the scenes depicting the murder of female characters are usually longer and more explicit that those of the men characters. I don’t know why that is. I think there are a lot of societal taboos associated with the representation of violence against men; if we look at the news, we tend to see way more stories of graphic and brutal violence against women, while stories in which men are victims are usually only briefly mentioned. I don’t know why, maybe it makes people uncomfortable, maybe it shows a certain weakness that screws up with the stereotypes of the male’s heroic untouchable strength, or maybe it’s just easier to represent a cat-and-mouse game between the killer and female victims. Hopefully things are changing now as we start having more male victims (with graphic murder scenes) and seeing interesting reversals in terms of gender roles within horror.
Fatally Yours: In reference to the previous question, Dario Argento once said, “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” Alfred Hitchcock elaborated by saying, “I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou. He said, ‘Torture the women!’ The trouble today is that we don’t torture enough.” What is your reaction when reading those quotes?
Maude Michaud: Wow, I think I could write a whole essay on this weighting the pros and cons! I’d say my initial gut reaction is that I feel very conflicted; part of me agrees with the quotes and understands what Argento and Hitchcock mean from a director’s point of view, while the other part of me feels like strongly reacting to the quotes because it just furthers the stereotypes of female as victims. Either way, I think they illustrate very well one of the driving force behind slasher films and I think it would be interesting to shake things up a bit by subverting these ideas and seeing if people react differently to them.
Fatally Yours: Why do you think sex and violence are so intertwined in the horror genre? How often would you say that nudity and sex scenes are actually relevant to the story in a horror film?
Maude Michaud: The first thing that comes to mind is Freud’s notion of the two basic conflicting human desires: eros (the life/sex drive) and thanatos (the death drive). Also, there’s a very fine line between sex and violence; sex itself can be very violent… There is also this whole idea of struggle for power over another person, both in sex and in violence, which is something horror films represent very well.
In French there is this expression “la petite mort” (the little death) that is a metaphor for orgasm; I think that is an interesting juxtaposition of the two ideas. This might be why it is so easy to intertwine them in horror films… As far as how often nudity or sex scenes are relevant, I tend to say it depends on many factors such as the story, how the scene is shot, etc. I’ve seen as many relevant sex scenes as I’ve seen unnecessary gratuitous nudity, so I think it would be fair to say that it’s a good half and half.
Fatally Yours: How do you respond to people that believe that horror films can only be enjoyed by males or that feminists can’t possibly enjoy horror films?
Maude Michaud: I don’t agree with this because I think horror can be empowering for women; there are so many great roles for women within horror that consist in way more than being the victim… People tend to take horror too seriously or think of it in a way that is a bit too literal…
I think the main problem is that when we say the word ‘horror’, people automatically think of slasher films even though there are many other subgenres of horror! A lot of people also see horror as a misogynist genre because of its representation of women, which I think is a shame because I can think of other genres that are way more demeaning! Romantic comedies for example! (laughs) If we stop and think about it, defeating a psycho killer is way more empowering than finding the perfect pair of shoes or the perfect boyfriend, no?
Fatally Yours: Though the horror genre has primarily been a “boy’s club”, it seems that more and more women filmmakers are getting behind the genre. What is your personal opinion on why there are less female filmmakers than males?
Maude Michaud: I think some women might be intimidated by the idea of the horror genre as being a “boy’s club” and as a result, do not dare to try it or do not know where to start. I think it’s a shame because this kind of thought helps maintain the status quo instead of allowing new voices to be heard.
That’s why I have one thing I’d like to say to women who would like to make a horror film: “Go, pick up a camera and start shooting. Dare to try. Tell your story like YOU want to tell it.” At first, I had trouble finding people to work on my projects, so I went ahead and did (almost) everything on my own. Then I started networking, meeting like-minded people and it just went from there.
I feel like the horror genre is at a turning point where it needs new voices and new kinds of stories to evolve. Wouldn’t it be great if female filmmakers end up being the catalyst for change?
Fatally Yours: Have you noticed any new trends in the horror genre that empower women? If so, what are they and do you think they will change the way horror films are viewed?
Maude Michaud: In the last 10 years or so, there has been more stories that focus on women’s experiences and are told from their points of view, which I think is a refreshing change. Ginger Snaps and Grace are my two favorite examples as they both deal with very female-centric, horrific situations in a way that is different from how similar subject matters were represented in the past (by taking a male perspective).
Another interesting trend is the subversion of audience’s expectations. The segment with Anna Paquin in Trick R Treat is a great example of that (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it!). I don’t know if these trends are going to significantly change the way horror films are viewed, but I certainly feel empowered by them and it just makes me want to contribute even more to their evolution through my work!
Fatally Yours: Have you faced any challenges in the film industry because of your gender?
Maude Michaud: Apart from macho comments from classmates and the constant need to tell people I wasn’t interested in directing romantic comedies or chick flick (the genre people automatically assume you want to work in when you’re a woman), I can’t really say I faced any challenges because of my gender. Well, maybe a bit at first as I wasn’t always taken seriously when I said I wanted to direct horror films, but it stopped when I showed people what I can do and proved that I was serious about it.
Fatally Yours: What women in horror do you admire?
Maude Michaud: There are so many! The first one that comes to mind is Kathryn Bigelow because she devoted her career to genres that are traditionally considered as “boy’s clubs” so kudos to her for that. Also, Mary Harron for her version of American Psycho, Karen Walton for writing the wonderful Ginger Snaps, fellow Montreal filmmaker Izabel Grondin who always has crazy and wicked ideas, and Marina de Van, director of the French film In My Skin which is one of the most disturbing (and one of my favorite!) horror films. Of course, I also have to add Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Barbara Steel, and Elvira on the actress side of things. I’m sure I’m forgetting tons of others, but those are the first ones that come to mind.
Fatally Yours: What are your thoughts on the modern horror climate?
Maude Michaud: As I quickly mentioned earlier, I feel that things are changing. It seems that the horror genre is at a point where it needs a good rejuvenation and I think that is why we see more films that are genre cross-over or throwbacks to older, lesser known films. I think it’s a good thing as injecting new blood into the genre will only make it stronger!
Fatally Yours: If you could direct one woman, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Maude Michaud: That is a really hard question; it’s nearly impossible for me to pick just one, but I promise I’ll keep the list short! First I’d say Tura Santana as I’ve had the chance to attend a Q and A where she was the guest and she has a kick-ass personality which I’m sure would make working with her super fun! I’m also a huge Rose McGowan fan, so I would definitely love to direct her in one of my films. In terms of Canadian actresses, I have a few that I’d really love to approach one day to work with, mainly Katherine Isabelle and Mia Kirshner. Lastly, I also need to include Melanie Laurent because her performance in Inglourious Basterds completely blew me away.
Fatally Yours: What inspires, influences and motivates you?
Maude Michaud: I’m very influenced by psychology and perception! I love Freudian theories and I think a lot of them are fun to incorporate in horror stories. I also have a fondness for insanity and unstable characters, for telling the story from the madman/madwoman’s perspective… I read a lot of psychology books about personality disorders and I find them inspiring for characters! And of course, I love to play with people’s expectations by twisting the story in different ways and taking the unexpected route.
Fatally Yours: Do you have any upcoming projects you can discuss with us?
Maude Michaud: Of course! In addition to finishing my documentary and promoting my short films, I’m also finishing the script of my first feature film, which is definitely an upcoming project as production will start later this year if everything goes as planned. I’m also working on a DVD compilation of some of my short films that I’ll independently distribute through my website later in the spring.
Fatally Yours: Where can people find more info on you and your films?
Maude Michaud: I’m currently building a website for my production company, Quirk Films, but in the meantime people can find basic information about my films on my main website http://maudemichaud.com as well as my blog http://maudemichaud.blogspot.com, which is where I post upcoming screenings, events, news, etc. I’ll make an announcement on the blog as soon as the Quirk website is up and running, but until then I hope you’ll stop by and drop me a line!