Monday, March 1, 2010

Interview with Filmmaker Lis Fies

Lis Effing Fies is the producer/writer/director/adequate actor/hippie wrangler/songwriter/nudist in the acclaimed, fucked up horror feature The Commune. Lis was the associate producer of Conventioneers (2006 Spirit Award – Cassavettes). She is known as the blogger Kid Sis in Hollywood, and is the inspiration for the comic character Kid Sis featured in the Eisner-winning Mom’s Cancer (as seen on CNN). Her unproduced feature screenplay Pistoleras won first place in the Action category of Creative Screenwriting Magazine’s Expo Contest and second place in Fade In’s Thriller category. But what will be on Lis’s tombstone is that she played the monster who stole the Green Power Ranger’s powers.

Fatally Yours: How did you fall in love with the horror genre?

Lis Fies: Man, I was a late bloomer. Backstory: My mom used to call me “Carol Anne” because as a kid I was tormented by bizarre nightmares. Weird stuff a six year old shouldn’t think of, like people on meat hooks suspended over rivers of blood. My mom’s only explanation was I must have been a Vietnam Vet reincarnated as her little girl.

Because of how sensitive and unhinged I already was as a kid, horror movies impinged too much on me to watch. I was the girl at the slumber party who would be in the other room during the horror movies. I did fall in love with Poe short stories when I was a kid, but I was actually frightened of horror movies to the point that when I got my first job (it was of course at a video store), I made the other employees put the horror titles away. I felt afraid looking at the covers. And then when I worked at Eclipse Comics I positively cringed whenever I had to package a Clive Barker order. I’ve spoken to several other women in horror who felt strongly afraid of horror movies when they were younger as well and also avoided the genre until their 20s. I think it’s a testament to women’s emotional fearlessness that we needed to explore what held the most dangerous energy for us.

Long story short, I didn’t fall in love with horror until my twenties when I went through a lonely depression spell and felt that horror actually pulled me out of it. The more I watched, the better I felt.

Fatally Yours: What does horror mean to you?

Lis Fies: To me it’s an incredible art form in which to explore taboos, emotions, and politics. I love that it’s an empty vessel that you can use as an allegory, yet still be entertaining to a broad spectrum of people. But at the deepest level, I’m a storyteller because I want to know what makes people tick. What better way to explore psychology and the subconscious than in the dark, walking on the dark side through the desires we lie to each other and ourselves about.

Fatally Yours: How and when did you get involved in the horror genre? 

Lis Fies: In undergrad at UCLA I interned at Debra Hill Productions because, well, she was the woman. I mean come on, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, They Live. I had learned to read on my big brother’s Avengers comics (Eisner winner Brian Fies) and Star Wars was a ridiculous influence on me, so I already understood genre. I think because Debra and John [Carpenter] had done so many brilliant movies I could understand, I was able to see Halloween and really get it, and realize it is one of the best movies ever made. An incredibly special film, by filmmakers who knew what they were doing and were purposeful. So that was a moment that opened my eyes. It was fortuitous for my movie taste growth that that pair was cagey and ballsy enough to be genre jumpers instead of staying pigeonholed throughout their careers.

I don’t get the snobby bias against genre. Industry folks talk about Scorcese and Coppola like they were the only ones doing edgy work in the ‘70s/early ‘80s and like only the dramas from that time period are valid, which is total crap. I still think Carpenter and DePalma are the most underrated living directors and expect to see at least one more genius work from each. Okay, and Larry Cohen. If you don’t love Q: The Winged Serpent, you’re dead to me.

Fatally Yours: What is one thing you’ve done within the horror genre that you are most proud of?

Lis Fies: I was able to portray the graphic rape of a character we loved and have the energy generated from the scene be empathy instead of unintended or prurient eroticism. That was one of the biggest goals of my filmmaking career, ever since studying the mistakes of The Accused and pretty much every other rape scene in mainstream films in my undergrad days at UCLA. I wanted to be informed enough to make filmic choices that would elicit the emotion in an audience I chose them to feel, in the absolute trickiest event to capture. And I decided to go for it on my first film. So if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, at least I’ve made a few men feel the betrayal and horror of rape both as the protagonist themselves, and as an avatar they empathized with. That’s huge. It’s been done successfully less than a handful of times in cinema.

Fatally Yours: How would you convince people who aren’t horror fans to give the genre a try? 

Lis Fies: I think Scream is a good gateway drug. And Rosemary’s Baby. My path in was through the holy trinity of Twin Peaks, Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files. Yet another reason I advocate genre-mixing: you open up the door to new fans who enjoy your action, comedy, or psychology and THEN they learn they like horror, too.

Fatally Yours: Do you feel women in horror get the proper recognition when compared to their male counterparts?

Lis Fies: No, I feel female filmmakers and the subject matter they’re interested in are completely discounted by both the horror audience and the majority of its press spokespeople. The cold reality is no one makes it in this business until someone higher up than them gives them their stamp of approval and a hand up. Look at the Masters of Horror’s epic exclusion of females. That series evolved out of those directors wanting to hang out and have dinner with each other once a month, and apparently there weren’t any women they wanted there. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any horror women period, it means women are still being excluded from the networking that leads to lifetime friendships that leads to favors and working together on film projects. The Big Problem is most men in Hollywood have no interest in a woman unless she’s their Significant Other, relative, or bros’ girl. Otherwise, they don’t know what to do with a woman and totally discard her instead of becoming friends and mentoring her. It’s the same way in the comic world, PS, and I imagine could be extrapolated to politics and the corporate world as well.

The real elephant in the room is can men and women be just friends? Does this pattern keep occurring because we’re not capable of platonic friendships? And/or is it because even as “cool” women emerge who could be brought into the boy’s club and crack it open for more women, men can’t risk it because of the lawsuit and gossip potential. I mean look, in our gossipy society and the nauseatingly sexist world of Hollywood, can an obviously feminist and well-intentioned man like a Wes Craven take a hot younger female director like me (wink, wink) under his wings without speculation that he’s sexually interested in her? Because no one is going to risk their own career to help an unattached woman. Or at least, no one has yet. The precipice female filmmakers balance on is very Edith Wharton The House of Mirth, and most of us are dying alone out in the cold.

So where we women horror filmmakers need help from our male compatriots, fans, and journalists is we need you to take an interest in us as humans; to take a stand and be our friends. We need you to be our heroes if we’re going to be able to ever truly progress and be heard. We need fellow female filmmakers to continue watching how men network, and emulate their teammate strategies that come from a sense of abundance as they create projects that include men and women. And we need both genders to have the humanity to allow male/female friendships to exist without projecting sordid intentions onto them. These are strategies that will provide a fertile ground for women to actually become visible and potent members of the horror community.

Fatally Yours: As a woman in horror, have you found it harder to be taken seriously in a genre that seems to be dominated by males? 

Lis Fies: It’s not even about being taken seriously, it’s about being discounted to the point that you’re invisible. To me the real holocaust in horror is that there’s a close-minded righteous clique attitude being promoted that only allows a few subgenres to be defined as horror. I was at a famous LA genre festival and I was late to see a good friend and female director’s slow burn psychological horror. On the way in I stopped to talk to some journalists who were eating and asked if they were coming in with me. They basically sniffed and looked away. No interest. Several were women. So what is a female filmmaker to do to get into a festival to get press to find an audience and a distributor when the very material we pick and our approach to it generates shrugs from the gatekeepers? Yeah, I’d call that pretty fucking hard.

And really all that subgenre pre-judgment is bullshit because horror journalists couldn’t write enough praise for Paranormal Activity once a big studio and flavor of the month ad campaign was behind it. But maybe if they’d championed Amanda Gusack and the far superior In Memorium that film would have been seen and adopted by Uncle Spielberg instead. See how complicated the problem is?

Fatally Yours: As a female filmmaker, do you feel horror directed by women is different than that which is filmed by men? If so, how is it different and why?

Lis Fies: I think that there’s a higher, more visible percentage of men who get into the horror genre with their first film because they think it’s lottery ticket money and an easy way to work their way up the ladder. That cocky twenty-something USC film school type who copies Saw again, or makes another unimaginative slasher rip-off but has nothing original to say and clearly thinks horror is beneath him. Nothing is more insulting to me than these filmmakers who come in and take a big steaming dump on the genre thinking it’s some chess career move. The women’s accomplishments I’ve seen seem much more premeditated and aware and auteur-esque. They’re raw and honest. You don’t really find women working in this genre who don’t love it and want to use it to explore personal demons, fears, the human psyche…all the great mind fuck adventures that really only horror safely offers.

Fatally Yours: Since you’ve been involved with the horror genre, have you noticed a change in women’s roles within horror whether it be roles in horror films, women behind the camera, women writers, etc.?

Lis Fies: Yes. There are more and more deserving female filmmakers not being given the same opportunities of funding, press, representation, distribution, and studio deals as their male counterparts. I’m just hoping the internet distribution revolution hurries the fuck up. I’m out of dead relatives jewelry to sell, and giving platelets knocks me out the whole day.

Fatally Yours: What women in horror do you admire?

Lis Fies: My friend Katt Shea, who has been an incredible mentor to me. Debra Hill. Maya Deren. Mary Harron. Heidi Martinuzzi. Angela Bettis. Stephanie Rothman.

Fatally Yours: If you could direct one woman from the horror genre, living or dead, in one of your films who would it be and why?

Lis Fies: Oh definitely Jessica Harper. She’s still stunning, and seems like a down-to-earth, super interesting person. And I’d make her sing. I really wanted to work with Zelda Rubenstein. But you know what the Jesus answer to this question is? Mary Shelley. Hahaha I win!

Fatally Yours: What inspires, influences and motivates you?

Lis Fies: A floating paper bag. Sooo beautiful. Just kidding. I always start with a question or idea I’m personally struggling with and want to solve for myself. I’m motivated by emotions, psychology, and a quest to understand human behavior. I’m inspired by other artists’ work. As much as I consume movies and TV, I can be just as inspired by the alchemy of music, live performance, and novels. I need to see a certain amount of brilliance a week to feel sane.

Fatally Yours: What are your favorite horror films, books, etc.?

Lis Fies: I always fall for the intellectual, boundary-pushing films about rebels, underdogs, and outsiders. The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now, The Shining, Carrie, Repulsion, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder, Evil Dead II, Tremors, Peeping Tom, Psycho, The Howling, The Thing, The Lost Boys, Blue Velvet, The Watcher in the Woods, Ginger Snaps, May, Bug, Surveillance, Poltergeist, The Craft, Django Kill!, The Frighteners, Videodrome, Misery, Alien, Silence of the Lambs. I’ve just started studying giallo, but I’m not educated enough to speak to favorites there yet. Basically if it’s got authentic emotions, intelligence, an original voice, and brass balls; I feel love.

Fatally Yours: Outside of horror what do you enjoy doing?

Lis Fies: I’m a comic book reader. I used to do stunts and have just started getting back into martial arts and working out. I’ve been blogging for five years. I love to talk with interesting people in small groups or one on one situations. Cuddle, have sex, swim, read, write, play with my dogs. Dance, poledance classes, listen to music. Fritter away hours on the computer chatting with friends on Twitter and Facebook. Being a rabble-rouser. I spend a lot of time laughing. My second favorite thing in the world to do is to drive around LA streets late at night, alone, with the wind in my hair and the radio cranked up to a punk song.

But my favorite thing to do is watch and/or make movies. Without that, I die.
Fatally Yours: What are your goals for yourself within the horror genre?

Lis Fies: There are so many movies I want to make. Pistoleras is up next, which is technically a teen chick Spaghetti Western. Though a true SW has incredibly horrific moments and Pistoleras will not disappoint. After that, if I can earn a middle class wage making a solid horror feature every year and a half, I’ll feel happy. Ultimately my goal is to explore more ideas and emotions I’m confused by to find answers, and to continue to expand the concept of horror to include women’s minds and the mixing of genres for fresh, frightening stories. I’m also starting THRILLEDFEST, the world’s first thriller film festival later this year. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women are drawn to that subgenre, or that it is the most ignored by the current horror community. Time to do something about that.

And Heidi Martinuzzi and I are working on two female centric film festivals together. Heidi’s done an immeasurable amount of good for women and the men who love them, and gets no worldly thanks, by the by. Zeus knows The Commune would be nowhere if Heidi hadn’t found it, and I would have killed myself thinking I’d failed at the one thing I’ve been working at every waking moment since I was six. It’s different for a woman. I’d given up having children and a husband to make movies, and here I was broke and my movie was ignored. So I was tying up loose ends, donating my stuff away, planning on offing myself at a screening of Paul Blart: Mall Cop when Heidi emailed me out of the blue and said she loved my movie. The Commune hadn’t gotten into one festival or had one article written about it until Heidi saw it, got it, and took a stand. Everything good that’s happened to it has come from a sixth degree of her review. That’s how much change one person can make to a female filmmaker. So thank you so much Sarah, for being one of those people. And thank you to Hannah Neurotica for putting out the call for recognition and teamwork. And huge appreciation to Andrew Shearer of Women in Horror (Georgia) and Andrew Rose of Pretty Scary Bloodbath (Texas) for providing the film festivals we need to appreciate women horror makers in February.

Fatally Yours: It’s been an absolute pleasure! Where can people find more info on you?

Lis Fies: They can see my feature at and keep up with me at

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