Creating a horror film is hard work. Creating a short horror film is even more difficult.
Being able to condense an entire universe of macabre thoughts and dark emotions into a pocket of time that usually doesn’t last longer than a few songs on the radio is a true talent. A director has to make the absolute most out of every shot they have. Which is why I am always quick to say short film directors are my favorite directors of them all, because they aren’t afforded the luxury of rambling for eighty or ninety minutes- they have seven to nine minutes to get the job done. When it’s done well, it’s a true work of art. When it’s done masterfully, you might just be watching a film by Karen Lam.
Based in Vancouver, Canada, Karen Lam is a screenwriter, producer and director.
Karen is also a businesswoman who has a law degree from the University of British Columbia and worked for British Columbia Film as in-house legal counsel and program administrator. She has taken her knowledge and talents to numerous speaking engagements and stands as one of the leading independent filmmakers in Canada.
In 2000, Karen began producing full-time and she currently has 12 producer credits and 4 director credits under her belt. She also written all four films she’s directed. Karen was co-executive producer of the acclaimed ‘The Bone Snatcher’, which was released in 2003, and became the first Canada/South Africa/UK feature film certified under the South Africa/Canada treaty. Not only did the film get a distribution deal, but it also recouped its $3.5 million production budget. No easy feat for an independent project.
Karen is a widely recognized and decorated artist, having won numerous awards including ‘Best Information Series’ (producer of The Creative Native- 2005 season) and ‘Best Director’ (for her amazing short ‘Doll Parts’ at the 2011HorrorQuest Film Festival in Atlanta, GA). In all, Karen has racked several awards at well over forty festivals.
I’ll give you a second to pick your jaw up off the ground.
Karen was a member of the 2009 Women In The Director’s Chair program at THe Banff Center as one of only eight directors chosen from across Canada and New Zealand. That’s alot of land with alot of incredibly talented people working in it, folks.
Karen has a true knack for not only showing us what creeps us out, but making us feel what creeps us out. Whether it be hitchhikers on the side of a desolate road, reclusive bookstore owners or locked cabinets, Karen Lam has the chops to deliver the goods. Ladies and genlemen, there aren’t many like Karen out there.
So, without further ado, I present to you the interview Ms. Lam was gracious enough to grant me.
1. As a Canadian director, what are some differences you see between US and Canadian horror?
In very general terms, I think Canadian writers and directors are less comfortable with genre than our American counterparts, so a lot of our films either satirize the horror genre, or try to “subvert” it. I see a lot more horror hybrids, like horror-comedies, send-ups and tributes, in Canada . Which is not to say that there’s not exceptions on both sides of the border.
As a matter of taste, I like my horror straight up. It’s much harder without the crutch of humour or overt cleverness. Of course, it also means that if you screw up, you REALLY screw up.
I’m much more inspired by Asian horror, particularly the serial killer films from Korea and the old samurai films from Japan . There’s a certain clarity to the filmmaking and visual aesthetic that really appeals to me.
2. Your resume speaks for itself. Is there any one particular project you are most proud of?
That’s like asking about your favourite child! Seriously, every film and television series I’ve been involved with, whether as a producer, advisor, or writer/director, was part of a big learning curve. On the producing side, “The Bone Snatcher” was a huge challenge and achievement in that it was a three country co-production, with four currencies, seventeen parties, and a really complex structure. And on the other end of the spectrum, and not on my imdb list, I produced an aboriginal Martha Stewart-styled television series called “The Creative Native” and we did beautiful work for a fraction of the cost of most lifestyle shows.
As a writer/director, I’m probably most proud of Doll Parts, but probably because I’m feeling a lot more confident in my own visual style and storytelling. It was self-financed, and I did it in the fall after we finished Stained, so it really was just an act of creative love. Also, I wrote the story in the summer in Hong Kong and inspired by my grandma. It was the last time I was able to see her before she passed away, and I was dealing with a lot of inner demons.
3. You had the chance to mentor under Kari Skogland. As a fellow Women In Horror heavyweight, what are some lessons behind the camera you learned from her?
I am incredible fortunate to have had amazing mentors for every stage of my career. I don’t think you can make it in this industry without that kind of mentorship, because so much in the film and television industry is passed down from hard-won experience.
Kari gave me incredible career advice, and she’s the person I call whenever I’ve hit a political snag. One of the most important pieces of advice was to really look at my own style, specifically as a genre director. In Canada , many of our directors work in both tv and film (it’s much less differentiated than in the US ). She told me that feature directors are hired because of the visual style that they impart on a project. This is even more true for genre films. The only reason they hire you is so you can set the film apart in the marketplace – it’s that specificity that matters in feature film directing. (This is the exact opposite in television.)
My other directing and career mentor is Rachel Talalay (Nightmare on Elm Street , Tank Girl). Rachel is kind enough to read my scripts, and give notes on the cuts of my films, and I can always count on her to come up a note that really makes the big difference. She’s also very encouraging in developing my personal style, and most of her advice is about pushing that style or my choices even further.
4. ‘Doll Parts’ is exactly the kind of horror/revenge film I love. Where does inspiration for a project as deep as this come from?
As a cheerful person in real life, I’m really only inspired to create when I’m feeling deeply angry, and from a sense of injustice. Doll Parts was conceived out of grief for my grandma (who was fighting for her life and seeing spirits almost every night) and my anger at the “dead girls as entertainment” theme. Because I was in Hong Kong , I was inspired by the idea of the spirit-white mask, and ceramic (being both delicate and yet completely sharp enough to make blades from.) The creation was fairly organic, and it’s in almost all of my stories: I don’t like the idea of explicit villains and heroes. There’s light in the dark, and there’s a monster in all of us.
5. Recently, a wonderfully chauvinistic review on your film ‘Stained’ drew the ire of the feminist party in the horror genre. How do you react to negative reviews? Be honest, how awesome was it to see such a one-sided argument get picked apart by your fellow women in horror?
I’m pretty self-analytical of my own films, so I have a pretty good sense of what I think the weaknesses and strengths are for every piece. So anything that’s either too extreme – negative or positive – I tend to treat with equal incredulity. It might be an ex-lawyer thing, but I love a good debate, so the pleasure I had for the reaction to the review was just that we were debating the issues.
‘Stained’ was really my reaction to a summer of romantic comedies, which I genuinely loathe, not because I’m being contrarian, but because I hate the message. I wrote the film in reaction to my girlfriend’s two young daughters, who were the reason for my seeing so many horrible movies, and the effect on them was disappointing. Here were two bright young girls who were concerned about finding the right guy, getting married, picking the perfect dress, and at such a young age when I thought they could be wanting more. One of them asked, “Why don’t you want to get married? What if you end up a crazy cat lady?” And I think I said, “What if I already am?” So the film is really an indictment of all the themes in romantic comedies, that finding “The One” will complete your life. Ultimately, I think it’s more satisfying to develop weird and unhealthy relationships with your friends, and embracing your inner demons.
So, it was a little ironic that the recent male reviewer’s concerns about ‘Stained’ was about the gender inequality and my treatment of the male characters. I truly wasn’t thinking about that when I was writing – I was channeling all my angst about modern pop culture, and it was written for my girlfriends’ two young daughters (when they got older, of course) and trying to tell them they had a choice, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
And finally, I was actually really happy to read a review that was unabashed in its gender criticisms. When you look at our industry, we’re at 7% women in above-the-line roles. The storytelling paradigm is inherently male, as is the gender biases, which are now disguised in commercial terms. I can fight “too many chicks” as a critical comment. But I can’t fight, ”unsympathetic or unrelatable protagonist.” I can argue against the “unfair to males” idea, but not a comment like: ”without proven commercial value.”
I loved having all my fellow women in horror weighing in, because we need to remind ourselves of what this reality is. When a review like this comes out, the biases are obvious enough for us to dissect and discuss in a non-personal kind of way. When the review is quietly negative using these disguised terms, we take the same points as a testament to our personal failings as filmmakers.
6. What make for a great horror film in your eyes?
Great suspense, quiet dread, beautiful visuals and something with a delicious sense of irony.
7. What do you want your legacy in horror to be when all is said and done?
I want to make films that inspire the next generation of young women and men to question the gender status quo. I want to get to a position where I can help and mentor other female genre directors and storytellers, to help them get their stories into the world. And yes, I want to creep people out, is that so wrong?
8. What is a ‘historic horror story’ that fascinates you?
Lizzie Borden. And Countess Elizabeth Bathory. For obvious reasons!
9. As a director, is there any taboo or subject you absolutely refuse to touch?
I dislike torture for the sake of torture. And I want to be able to deal with sexual violation without making it titillating, but as ugly as it actually is.
10. Who are some of your heroes behind the camera?
Floria Sigismondi (for her visual style), Michael Haneke (for his indictment of violence), Hitchcock, Polanski, Kubrick. Park Chan-wook, Takeshi Miike, Zhang Yimou. Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro.
11. What is your favorite horror film?
Audition. I Saw the Devil. The Chaser.
12. Is there a horror theme that you think desperately needs a makeover?
I think there’s enough makeovers in the market already, doncha think? Seriously, I’d like more original stories and more inventive creatures/horror. And I’d like the end to home-movie/shaky cam.
13. As a woman and a horror/thriller enthusiast, 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?
I think women filmmakers have the ability to elevate horror into an art form. It’s not about the amount of gore and violence, but about how the storylines, characters and suspense are used to setup the gore and violence.
14. What are you currently working on?
Along with trying to raise the financing on a slate of four horror feature films, I’m currently finishing up a new short film called “The Stolen”, which is a dark fairytale. It has some horror elements, but way closer to Hans Christian Andersen than Miike.
It was an absolute pleasure chatting with Karen and truly was a highlight of my 2011. For this, I thank her!
Did you miss my review of Karen’s short, ‘Doll Parts’, a few nights ago? Check it out!
Keep updated on all of Karen’s film projects!