Thursday, February 4, 2010

Interview with Director Barbara Stepansky

Filmmaker Barbara Stepansky was born in Poland, but her father’s involvement in the Solidarity movement led to the family relocating to Germany. After receiving an undergraduate degree in philosophy of science from University College London, Barbara decided to pursue her Master’s at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

During her time at USC her short Blueberry Pancakes garnered the Directors Guild of America Student Film Award in the women’s category and played at the Kodak Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Program in Cannes. In 2002 she was invited to participate in Film Independent’s Directors’ Lab. Barbara completed a second graduate degree in Directing at the American Film Institute, where she won the Student Emmy for Best Director for her thesis film, The Trojan Cow. The film also won the Student Voices Jackson Hole Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize at the USA Film Festival National Film and Video Competition and in 2007 it was on the short list for the Academy Awards.

Barbara is the recipient of several scholarships, including the King Family Foundation Scholarship for Excellence in Film and Video Production, the Mary Pickford Foundation Scholarship for Excellence, the Bridges Larson Foundation Production Award, the Patrick Peyton Award for Excellence, and the Franklin J. Schaffner AFI Fellow Award. She has shadowed directors on the sets of Joan of Arcadia, E.R. and House.

Her first thriller/horror feature film Hurt starring Melora Walters and William Mapother, with High Treason Productions has been released in the US on DVD and her second thriller/horror feature film Fugue will be available in 2010.

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

Barbara Stepansky: It was definitely not love at first sight. It grew into true love. When I was a young girl, horror films affected me so much that I couldn’t stand it. I saw The Fog when I was just seven and Alien at twelve. They terrified me! It wasn’t until I started film school that I really came to appreciate the craft behind the films and how effective this type of filmmaking was. How often do you get these physical reactions out of an audience? Once I became involved in that whole world, it became completely addictive.

Fatally Yours: What does horror mean to you?

Barbara Stepansky: A good horror film is a direct commentary on our society and our concerns. Just like a historical period piece can actually be a very precise expression of current states of political affairs, horror is an expression of our current deepest fears – about love and trust, about altruism and individuality.  E.g. The Stepford Wives is about our struggles with feminism, The Fly about messing with nature and abuse of scientific progress. This “bigger picture” and transcending the text is what I love about the intelligent horror films out there. On a more personal level horror is one of the very few genres left that makes me feel something. I like being scared. I love to jump and to gasp. Because that reminds me I’m alive. It reminds me that “Hey, actually, my life’s pretty good! I’m not getting impaled by a crazy stalker right now!”

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

Barbara Stepansky: I first got professionally involved in the genre when I got hired to direct Hurt. The producers had seen my short thesis film The Trojan Cow, which wasn’t a horror film at all – but it had elements of tension and suspense that made them believe I could pull off a thriller/horror film well. In order to prepare for Hurt I started to watch any horror film I could get my hands on. Once I wrapped on the movie, I couldn’t stop watching them. And by now I’d like to think of myself as a horror connoisseur.

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

Barbara Stepansky: I’m a big believer in making the audience care about your characters before you put them into dangerous or murderous situations. I think I’ve successfully managed to do that in both my films Hurt and Fugue. I don’t make horror films that have excessive gore in them (though my Mom would beg to differ) so I’m happy to have that kind of liberty with my characters.

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

Barbara Stepansky: That’s been hard. I’ve tried. I tell those people that “It’s just a movie” and “It’s so much fun!” But that doesn’t seem to make an impact. Even people who work in the film industry are hard to convince to watch my films, if they don’t like the genre. And they must know it’s fake! I don’t know how to convince them anymore. You tell me.

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

Barbara Stepansky: I have a hard time categorizing women in horror vs women in the film industry because I don’t really see that women directors in general get the proper recognition. The numbers of theatrically released films made by women hasn’t really risen throughout the years, and there’s only a handful of female directors tackling action or horror movies on a larger scale. Even though women have started to run studios and huge productions, this didn’t necessarily translate into hiring more women directors. I find the numbers out there quite discouraging but that definitely won’t keep me from continuing making movies.

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? 

Barbara Stepansky: I’ve been very lucky that I found supportive people both male and female, who I love to work with and share mutual respect. It’s tough for any filmmaker out there, that’s undeniable, but if I had to make one observation is that I’ve witnessed the biggest tangible differences in the development and funding phases. There definitely seems to be more hesitation around female directors in that area. I have seen male filmmakers with let’s say a mediocre horror film get funding right away for their next movie – whereas as a female director your film better blow away the entire world and ideally be an academy contender before someone wants to invest in you further. So if you think it’s hard getting your first feature, it’s equally and sometimes harder to get your second one.

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?

Barbara Stepansky: I’m not sure that I’ve seen enough horror films that were directed by women to make an informed judgment call. As far as I can tell from having seen Mary Harron’s, Katherine Bigelow’s and Mary Lambert’s work, these films all seem equally horrifying to me. There is a big discussion going on within fan circles as to whether female directors are capable of creating horror films that are more or just as disturbing as their male counter parts do, but then again we could have that same discussion about Japanese versus American horror.

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.?

Barbara Stepansky: What I’ve noticed and really like is that a lot of horror films have female protagonists at the center of their stories fighting to survive. It’s one of the few genres left standing that seems to be working just fine for all audiences with a female protagonist basically running the story line.

Fatally Yours: What women in horror do you admire?

Barbara Stepansky: I admire any woman who wants to work in the horror genre. I think they’re all extremely cool for daring to throw themselves into dark places and to look behind the curtain of our complex human psyche.

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?

Barbara Stepansky: Greta Schroeder (Nosferatu). I adore her eyes.

Fatally Yours: What inspires, influences and motivates you?

Barbara Stepansky: I studied philosophy of science, so I’m very influenced by the concepts of quantum physics. I’m actually in development on film projects that have a scientific spin to them. I was born in Poland and raised in Germany, so I have a very European background which led me to studying history more and more these days. I love to listen to the “What You Missed in History Class” podcast, because it’s so amazing how many great stories and details of historical events out there I still don’t know about – and some of it is pretty sick. I also love to look at new artists and photographers, e.g. Sally Mann’s work is wonderful. What motivates me is my family, especially my little cousins. I want them to be proud of me and I’d really love it if they could brag to their friends about their aunt some day.

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

Barbara Stepansky: My favorite horror films are Alien, The Fog, Session 9, Creep, Near Dark and Rosemary’s Baby. I was also happily creeped out by The Others and The Orphanage. My favorite horror films of 2009 were Martyrs and Grace.  One of my favorite horror books growing up was V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic – if that qualifies as horror. And my favorite comic books are Witchblade and Ascension.

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

Barbara Stepansky: I love to read (books), play pool and go to live concerts. I get ridiculously excited about good music, probably because my own concert pianist career went down the toilet when I realized I had insurmountable stage fright. Now I just prefer to listen.

Fatally Yours: What are your goals for yourself within the horror genre?

Barbara Stepansky: It would be great to make a horror film that can leave a mark somehow. I’m not sure how yet. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, but I’d love to make something either interesting or disturbing enough that would make people say “You have to see this!” with that thrilled urgency in their voice. That would be fantastic.

Fatally Yours: Where can people find more info on you?

Barbara Stepansky: I’m still working on my personal website, but in the meantime people can check out my bio at and get a sneak peek at the next feature on currently in post production.

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