Who doesn’t love a feel good story? A story that follows one’s strong will and desire to beat the odds, characters who are faced with sky-high obstacles only to tear them down and come out the other side victorious?
How many directors these days are working with this theme in the horror genre?
Meet Barbara Stepansky. She is.
An award-winning independent feature film director, Barbara is a writer, director and producer with an ever growing laundry list of achievements on her IMDB page.
From her directorial debut (the short ‘Blueberry Pancakes’) to her latest creation (a segment in the highly acclaimed ‘I Hate L.A.’ comedy/horror mash-up created by an amazing group of Women In Horror), Barbara has enjoyed a fantastic decade-plus as an independent filmmaker.
Born in Poland, (Woot! Polish Pride, baby!..ahem..) Barbara has a degree in philosophy of science from University College London and then moved forward with her Master’s at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Frankly, this woman in horror knows her stuff.
Barbara was kind enough to take a few minutes from her busy schedule and allow me to interview her for my Women In Horror Month interview project. It was an honor to chat with her, and I hope you enjoy the ensuing interview.
1. As a fellow Polish descendant and horror fan, what are a few of your favorite foreign horror films?
I really like the “French Extreme Wave” – I enjoyed “Martyrs”, “Irreversible” and “Inside” a lot. Obviously, I am heavily influenced by Roman Polanski, especially “Rosemary’s Baby”, though he may be more of a thriller director. And I’m not sure if the British are considered “foreign”, but I loved “The Descent”, and Christopher Smith’s “Creep” is one of my favorite horror flicks.
2. You have created an impressive resume in a decade where original horror has been hard to come by through the mainstream. What inspires you as a writer and filmmaker?
Thank you, I love making movies so that’s probably a large part of the equation. I feel that being a director is as much of an artistic privilege as being a concert pianist. I want to practice constantly to be as good as I can possibly be. What inspires me as a filmmaker is a smart story. I love being challenged when I’m watching a movie, so when I’m making one, I am always drawn to material that has a certain amount of depth and layers. I think that’s why my films tend to be described as more psychological horror. The dread is derived from what could happen versus what is happening. What I also find inspiring are stories that carry some sort of message of triumph. It may be a small triumph, like in HURT Lenore overcoming her fear of needles. But I find these kinds of little wins incredibly satisfying and I look for them in every story as much as I can.
3. ‘Hurt’ is an incredible psychological horror film. It’s one of those films where the visual horror takes a backseat to the story-telling and yet the film maintains an extremely unsettling atmosphere. As a director and as a Women In Horror, do you feel it’s easier for the female gender to tap into psychological horror over the gore and violence that seems to dominate the male horror psyche?
Again, thank you for picking up on that. I don’t know if it’s necessarily easier for female directors to tap into that. Of the top of my head I could think of at least ten male directors who are incredible psychological horror masterminds. Brad Anderson’s “Session 9” is my personal pinnacle in terms of the types of movies I want to make. I do feel that female filmmakers have a more natural tendency to bring character and motivation to the forefront before getting to the gore and violence part of it all. I have a hard time diving into a slew of kills before I’ve gotten to know and started to care for my characters. I don’t think there’s much fun in just going from one violent death to the next without a point. Then again, I was never a huge fan of one-night-stands either. Maybe there’s a correlation.
4. ‘Fugue’, judging by the synopsis, is another moving emotional terror piece. As a director, is there a topic or taboo you simply refuse to touch?
I have in the past passed on a self-mutilation movie, so that’s probably a topic I’m not entirely keen on. I have to say, I do treat every movie on a case-by-case basis. When I read a script for a directing assignment or write my own, it has to fulfill two criteria: I would want to see it myself – and I cannot be embarrassed showing it to my parents. I feel that I’ve fared well sticking to that formula, as I’m very proud of my films so far.
5. You directed a sequence for the awesome Women In Horror project, ‘I Hate L.A’. How awesome was it to work with so many incredibly talented filmmakers and actresses?
Elisabeth Fies is one of my favorite people in the industry. She inspired so many of us to go out there and shoot. When she pitched me the idea to “I HATE L.A.”, I instantly wanted to be a part of it and knew the short I just had to make. Without her drive and energy, ROAD RAGE would never have happened. I had a great time driving around Los Angeles and stealing shots. Of course, getting Keiko Agena from “Gilmore Girls” and “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” involved was a dream come true. She was the only person I wanted to do this with and she did an incredible job.
6. I find it interesting that you are one of the few ladies I’ve talked to who admit they didn’t immediately fall in love with the genre. Like myself, you were traumatized at an early age and then grew into a self-proclaimed horror connoisseur. What scares you?
I’m still scared of a lot of things: Darkness. Spiders. Sharp objects. Rejection. What doesn’t scare me? The day I’m not scared anymore, I’ll probably have to switch the genre I’m directing. I think it’s important to be in touch with the emotion that you’re evoking as much as possible. I have a quality that allows me to see my movie with fresh eyes over and over again. So when we were mixing sound for FUGUE, I was still jumping or gasping at scary moments as if it were the first time even though I knew they were coming. I don’t want to lose that ability anytime soon.
7. As a writer and director, you’ve said you’re a firm believer in making the audience care about your characters before you put them in a dangerous situation. Who are some of your favorite directors who excel at this element of filmmaking?
I’ve mentioned Brad Anderson. Of course, there’s John Carpenter, who I practically grew up on. Ridley Scott is amazing, and I also like Matt Reeves’ and Guillermo Del Torro’s work in that respect. I know that Andrea Arnold is not a horror film director, but in terms of a female voice in my universe, I must add her because I absolutely adore her work. She has an amazing ability to effortlessly build high tension and character stakes.
8. Isn’t it about time the world is introduced to a female franchise serial killer?
Sure. I’ll watch it. My vote is for an epic period mini-series on Belle Gunness, the Mistress of Murder Hill.
9. What is a ‘true history horror lesson’ that intrigues you?
There are so many great ones! I love the stories of the Sisters Fox and Lizzie Borden. Very intriguing (and bloody) is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France in 1572. I also recently re-read the story of Gonzalo Pizarro’s failed expedition to El Dorado in 1541, which sounds like a horrible ordeal.
10. What advice would you offer a young woman interested in joining the ranks of Women In Horror?
The best advice I can give to any aspiring filmmaker before they dive into a project is to ask yourself, “If this were not MY movie, would I want to watch it?” And keep asking yourself that question as you go along every step, being as honest with yourself as you can be: If this were not MY fake blood, would I think it looks ridiculous? If this were not MY director’s cut, would find it moves like a slug on vicodin? Finally, if you’re interested in filmmaking in general and horror specifically, the only way to get started is to pick up a camera and get going. Filmmaking is a craft, so you should not expect to achieve perfection on a first try. It requires time, patience and stamina. It can be tough, so if you’re not having fun and loving every second of it, there are other things to do in life. But I can promise you that if you do keep going, you will improve. And there’s nothing better than audible audience reactions – knowing that “Hey, we did that!”
Once again, I thank Barbara for all her time and insight.
Keep in mind- Barbara’s films ‘FUGUE’ and ‘HURT’ are both available on iTunes and www.amazon.com!
For more information on this exceptionally talented Woman In Horror, check out her website: