Tonight, we head up North yet again, crossing the border into the fertile independent horror grounds of Canada!
Xstine Cook admits she wasn’t necessarily planning on becoming a Woman In Horror when she started her directing career back in 2008 with ‘Dead Boyfriends’, but with a title like that, it almost seems she was destined to have a seat reserved at this blog, no?
Cook also has carved out a professional niche amongst certain items that tend to make many people’s skin crawl. Puppets.
But not just any puppets- Xstine is the artistic director of the Calgary Animated Objects Society. Her most moving film to date, ‘Spirit Of The Bluebird‘, has enjoyed immense success throughout the festival circuit, and also is proudly and highly regarded within the Society.
Cook currently has five films on her directorial résumé, including the comedies ‘Tar Sand Pudding’ and ‘The Birthday’, however it’s her stark and poignant documentary on the heartbreaking murder of Gloria Black Plume that has made her name known the world over. True horror forever trumps fictional horror. Using her artistic savvy, Cook co-directed ‘Spirit Of The Bluebird’ to raise awareness not only of the woman lost but the legal responsibility lost in the ensuing trials for the murder.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Xstine and it was an absolute pleasure.
1. As a mask maker, puppet artist, producer, director, writer and actress, what avenue of the horror industry was your first passion?
I’m not so sure I was attracted to the horror “industry” per se. I was always very good at scaring the shit out of my friends with ghost stories and role playing games in the dark woods. Puppets and masks have been part of what I do since before I got out of high school. They seem to naturally fit into the horror genre because for one, people find them creepy as hell, and for another, it’s a lot easier to maim and kill a puppet than a live actor.
2. ‘Suckathumb’ is quite a feat, using an array of film techniques. Was there an aspect of this film’s production that proved to be especially difficult?
Stop motion. Stop motion is an excruciatingly painstaking art form. During ‘Suckathumb’, I found out I’m dead useless at it. Might have had more success if we’d given it more time than the last three hours of a week long shoot. We faked the stop motion parts.
3. As a Canadian filmmaker, what are some differences you see between Canadian horror (and cinema in general) and U.S horror?
Well Canadians are renowned for our humour, our humility, and our secret sense of superiority over gun-toting, bible-thumping raving lunatics south of the border. In terms of Canadian horror and cinema in general, I see those qualities, as well as a more home-grown look and feel, probably due to the pathetic state our film industry has been reduced to under recent government cutbacks and de-incentives. We have a hard enough time producing an authentic Canadian vision without our own government doing what it can to make it easier for the talented and driven to sell out to the south.
4. You’ve said you enjoy doing movies “ghetto style”- raising the money on your own, possessing full creative control over your projects and using every resource possible. What proves to be advantages and
disadvantages doing films this way?
For one, it’s the only way I know how to do a film. So far.
The advantage is there’s no far away producer telling you to change the ending, the music, the distribution, or anything else. The disadvantage is you’re so busy doing “window washing”, that is, stuff anyone and her dog could do, that you don’t have time or energy to focus on the real work that only you can do: the necessary, must not be neglected creative work of bringing your vision into the camera.
5. Who are some of your heroes behind the camera, as a director?
Beck Cole (‘Here I Am’), Warwick Thornton (‘Samson and Delilah’), Chris Eyre (‘Smoke Signals’), Zacharias Kunuk (‘Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner’), Werner Herzog (‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’, ‘Aguirre the Wrath of God’, ‘Fitzcarraldo’), David Cronenberg (‘Naked Lunch’), Atom Eyogen (‘The Sweet Hearafter’), Jim Jarmush (‘Stranger than Paradise’), Velcrow Ripper (‘Fierce Light’), Luc Besson (‘Leon: The Professional’, ‘Nikita’, ‘The Fifth Elemen’t), John Newland (‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’). Tim Burton.
6. ‘Dead Boyfriends’ is another wonderful short that has a very macabre core with a visually beautiful overcoat. As your first short, how did you go about putting this project together?
I wanted to make a film with my good friend and longtime collaborator Mooky Cornish, a brilliant clown. We’d previously done a trio of truly zero budget short films “Face & Mooks at Home” where my clown persona Face dreams of killing hers, Mooks, over mundane roommate transgressions. The dream killing is all done with hand puppets. I approached Mooky about doing a “Face & Mooks at the Daycare” which would use my newly acquired experience as a hapless baby juggler, aka mom, as source material. Mooks didn’t bite, and offered doing a film version of “Dead Boyfriends” instead.
‘Dead Boyfriends’ was originally written by Mooky as song and puppet interlude in our Bricks and Earth Circus, which toured in Alberta in 2000.
I capitulated and managed to wrangle a $10,000 grant from our province’s Art Foundation. Coming from a theatre background, I didn’t know film and video lingo, so I got a filmmaker friend to lend me a copy of his previously successful project grant, and adapted it’s format to my project.
We began the process of scripting and casting. By casting, I mean casting puppets. I used existing puppets for the band and the devils, but created new boyfriends for the film.
We put together a band, people like Mark & Dylan Sadlier Brown, Ben Johnson, and Mike McCafferty who I’d worked with in my music project Xpandora & the Handsome Strangers, as well as some session players. We recorded the song.
Then we shot it. I don’t use a large crew. It’s usually me, Mooks, Neil Evenson on camera, Sean Dennie on lighting, and one or two people helping wrangle puppets. We shot for 5 days. My kids hated it, despite being sequestered at their auntie’s surrounded by cousins. We loved it.
I was in charge of making and more or less operating all the puppets, though Mooks operated them as well. Mooky was in charge of the sets. Don’t put a clown in charge of anything. The 4 second red curtain that opens the top of the film took 3 hours to shoot. The 2 second hatbox / lion tamer set popping open took 2 hours at the very end of the very last day, wrapping at 4 am.
Sean’s lighting really brings the production quality up every time. Neil Evenson is on camera, and he’s in the editing room. He always keeps transitions in mind, and how the visual story is hanging together. Dead Boyfriends was our first leap into green screen. We shot most of it on green screen, and Neil brought in backgrounds and exterior shots in post. Neil has a real gift for editing to music, and he had alot of fun on this one. I had to make him put more blood and gore into the final verses though. Dead Boyfriends is a music video, really, and hey, it just won “Best Music Video” at the Naperville Independent Film Festival!
7. As a puppet master, who are some of your favorite practical FX people in the industry?
Chiodo Brothers, hands down. They can do anything, from stop motion to puppets, marionettes (‘Team America’), cut outs, whatever. They learned it from the ground up, as kids in their basement with a super 8 camera. When you talk to all three of them at once, it’s like one brain with three bodies. Each has their own area of specialty. They are unbelievably talented.
Chrystene Ells is another. She worked at M5 in San Fran on Burton’s ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ and numerous projects. She is a writer, director, producer, designer, builder, performer, and technical geek. A force to be reckoned with, currently spreading the puppet film germ in a lab in Regina at the Saskatchewan Film Pool.
8. You are the artistic director of the Calgary Animated Objects Society. What does a title like that entail?
A lot of paperwork. Haha. A lot of creativity as well. Mostly coming up with programming ideas, finding funding or sponsorship for said ideas, then finding a team and doing the ideas.
My favourite two projects:
1. Building a giant 12 foot tall white buffalo puppet with inmates in Drumheller Institution.
2. Carving a giant dead chicken with 40 neighbours to protest the unneighbourly practices of Lilydale Chicken Factory, which is situated in the middle of our ‘hood of Ramsay, about 10 minutes from the centre of downtown Calgary. We unveiled the chicken next to the factory to the ‘Carmina Burana/Chicken Dance’, blew a giant flame out its ass, ran giant drumstick races, and ate BBQ chicken I got the factory to donate. We then screened ‘Chicken Run’ on the factory wall. Coz we’re from Ramsay, roight!
9. ‘Spirit Of The Bluebird’ is such a moving piece, dealing with true horror. It took alot of strength from the Bird family and a great sense of dignity and creativity from you as a director. What has been the general reaction to this piece during film festivals?
‘Spirit of the Bluebird’ is a tribute to Blood grandmother Gloria Black Plume, who was brutally murdered by two men behind my home 12 years ago. At the time, I vowed to put a mural there in her memory. It took 11 years to get in contact with Gloria’s family, and to find an aboriginal artist to do the mural. By that time, I’d decided it should be an animated film / mural, so Gloria’s story could go beyond the alley and out into the world.
In the summer of 2010, I finally made contact with Gloria’s daughter Kaily Bird, who very cautiously agreed to at least listen. She and her family had been really hurt by how the justice system handled Gloria’s case. Even though it is known who killed Gloria, both of the men got away with it. One was never charged.
At the same time, I asked around for an aboriginal artist who could animate, and work in large scale. Quickdraw Animation Society here in Calgary has various youth training programs, where young people are paid to learn animation. One of Quickdraw’s programs is for aboriginal youth, and they recommended Cree artist Jesse Gouchey.
Jesse is a talented painter, and was game to take on the project. He did some rough sketches of the nature scenes we had in mind, and a bluebird. He met up with Kaily and her auntie and they loved his artwork, and, understanding where we were headed with the project, agreed we could move forward.
Jesse began spray painting and photographing the fence and walls of the garage, painting a fully rendered landscape with a bird or other animal moving across it. He would paint the figure and background, take a shot, paint out the figure, then paint the background back in and repaint the figure, take another shot. He shot over 1800 jpgs to make the 4 minute animation, working throughout the summer of 2010.
At the end of the summer, we invited Gloria’s family to come to the mural unveiling. We made food, we invited the media. More than 40 of her relatives stood in the alley, some for the first time since they endured a walk-through with the court to no avail years before. After the unveiling, we interviewed several of Gloria’s family members in a makeshift sound studio in the garage. These interviews became the soundtrack of the film, including the beautiful singing and drumming of Gloria’s nephew Jonathan Tall Man, who diligently sang, listened, sang again for an hour and ahalf until he was truly satisfied with his performance.
Neil edited, taking Jesse’s jpegs and reframing them to smooth out the motion. He used Jonathan’s music to great effect. We played the first cut for Kaily, Gloria’s daughter, and three test audiences, and cut it again, quite differently. Showed it to Kaily again, this time it worked.
The film has been screened at over 40 festivals all over north america, and has won several awards. It played at TIFF, and we brought Kaily to talk during the Q & A after the screening. We could not have made as strong of a film as we did without the family’s trust and participation, and for that we are eternally grateful. We hope that we have done justice to Gloria’s memory through this work.
10. What makes for a great horror film, in your eyes?
Tension. I’m not a fan of splatter and gore, despite the testimony of my films. A great soundtrack is at least half of a film’s impact. You can still watch a compelling film despite poor visual quality, but you just can’t watch a film with poor sound quality. Tension. It’s in the writing of course, and in the visual storytelling, but the soundtrack plays a huge role.
I found out ‘Suckathumb’ is not a kids movie. The hard way. My 7 year old wanted to do a class project on Heinrich Hoffmann, the German author of the gothic poems ‘Suckathumb’ is based around. At the end of her presentation, she showed mommy’s film. The teacher and I watched in horror as the tension built and the music put the gears on, and child after child put their fingers in their ears and turned away from the screen. A mom came up days later and said “I finally got him to go to bed on his own, and we’re back to holding his hand til he falls asleep!” I’m all for test audiences… but not in a public school.
11. What would you like your legacy in horror filmmaking to be?
I can’t say I am a true horror film maker. Ironically, I thought I was making comedy films, and only discovered I was making horror when it was horror festivals that were accepting my films. I’m considering attempting a true horror film. Maybe then I’ll wind up with a comedy.
I sincerely appreciate Xstine’s time and enthusiasm with this interview. Her support, like all of the other ladies’ involved with this blog, is truly humbling.
Check out Xstine’s IMDB page to learn more about her fantastic career! Keep your eyes peeled for more great stuff from her!