We sat down with Elza Kephart, director and co-writer of Shudder's Slaxx, a film about a pair of killer jeans, to understand the development of the project, how she feels about the current climate of horror, and what scares her. Elza's a person of many hats, writing and directing since 2002, with early projects like Naughty Soxxx and Graveyard Nights – she's also been involved in the art department for prominent Hollywood productions like X:Men: Days of Future Past. She's an incredibly fascinating writer/director and certainly one to watch in the independent Horror scene.
How are you doing today?
I am good, I love doing press, it's so rewarding!
Tell me about the journey Slaxx went on from pitching to financing – I know you've spoken about Frontieres and your producer, Anne-Marie Gélinas – so, how do we end up partnering with Shudder?
The genesis of the idea took me and Patricia Gomez (co-writer, producer) 20 years from the concept of crazy killer pants to us writing a script that was actually good. It was three very different drafts, and we finally were mature enough to come up with what you see in Slaxx. I've known Anne-Marie (co-producer) for years in the Horror world in Montreal, I always wanted to work with her – when we pitched at Frontieres, she called us wanting to read the script, and the next day told us “Oh my god, I love it, I want to do this so bad!” I was really happy because I'd seen what she'd done with Turbo Kid, and that with her on board we'd get the film made. She's a powerhouse of barrelling through impossible projects, and she set us up with Shaked Berenson (co-producer), head of Horror Collective, who brought on Shudder.
He was really excited about Slaxx also – from the moment we pitched at Fantasia, it was like a non-stop train. We applied for financing two months after Fantasia, which to do so quickly is insane, and we didn't get it the first round, but we found funders who were really excited and on-board. We started prep in Fall 2018, so it was a real whirlwind from Fantasia onward.
Did you ever have any moments where “I'll fund Slaxx but I need you to change X,” and you had to stand your ground?
Not really, we did have a couple of bad drafts but people loved the concept so we knew it was marketable. The main question before we wrote the good draft was ‘does it stand on its own, is it a feature?' A lot of people were like ‘oh that's a funny short idea!', and we said “No, Slaxx is a feature!” We just didn't have the material to make it a feature, which was the main obstacle, but as soon as I wrote this last draft with Patricia, it just worked! People read it and were like ‘this is awesome!'
I was really worried because the Quebec Grant Agency is known to be a bit family drama-centric, but I knew they'd changed the directors and the new director really loved Horror, so I thought, if there's a chance, now's the time. Even then, I was still really surprised with how much they loved it – they did have a few fair comments, but mostly formalistic stuff. I think because it's so insane, no one really knew what to say – it's not like a drama you've seen after all, it's killer pants.
I'm really glad to hear that, because I really loved Slaxx when I saw it at FrightFest – even from the posters, it had such a strong presence, which is why I got so interested. Killer pants is one thing, but it gets even crazier as it goes on, and it all works so well – I wanted to ask you about your influences for Slaxx, because I know fast fashion docs influenced this latest draft, but are there any other surprising influences?
The script is definitely a slasher, so we approached it from a slasher perspective – that's where Patricia's input comes in because she LOVES slashers; she's a complete pro at the slasher grammar. She'd tell us things like “Here we can't see the monster yet, but we have to see it there, and here is where we understand what it finally is”, so the slasher grammar was certainly the most influential.
As far as the script, I can't say anything influenced me too much – maybe Brazil. Because that's an amazing social commentary on the madness of government and it really skewers all the 1984 Orwellian terms that I love to hate so much. So I'd say 1984 and Brave New World influenced Slaxx too because of how they use language to point out the insanity of these institutions; I think nowadays, corporations are the institutions that run our world, and they have their own bizarre newspeak, and people have unknowingly adopted it because they're not seeing the quiet brainwashing going on.
Noam Chomsky also influenced the content; I love his take on corporate culture too. It's more social commentary than particular films that influenced me for the script.
I can totally see that with the way Slaxx blends this social commentary with horror into something that's as powerful as it is satirical – especially when we get into the latter half of the film, you manage to maintain the absurdity while revealing the powerful commentary that's sewn into the script, which is what I loved, and that the true villain is the corporation themselves.
Yes, yes! Even the manager is just a pawn, just as brainwashed as everyone else – his actions for the good of the store reflect the corporate governmental brainwashing that I wanted to critique, so I hope it plays on different levels like that.
I saw in a previous interview you talked about how you think horror works best – where something is obscured, yet seems familiar, but most of what scares you comes from your own imagination, so I wanted to know what scares YOU?
Oh! Well, I'll tell you the scariest films I've ever seen are Michael Haneke's films. He is the best Horror filmmaker bar none. I've never been as disturbed as watching his movies. I would say I don't get that scared, it's more disturbed – Zodiac as well, I found very disturbing. There's very few films where I have to stop because I'm so disturbed and Zodiac was one of them. I think it was partly because of the gaze, you know how the killer watches from afar, and I tried to use that same fear in Slaxx. That there's always someone watching you, stalking you, so you really feel that presence.
When you feel like someone's just watching you.
Yeah, it's that unseen enemy. For Michael Haneke it's not so much that, but it's just – I don't even know how to describe his films – he's able to pierce the veil of normality, and expose the deep, underlying…. I don't know, fucked-up-ness! [Laughs.] Of our society, that in a way, is so chilling. If I can ever make a film one day that's like Michael Haneke, I'll be in heaven.
There really isn't another filmmaker like Haneke, he's just super disturbing on a whole other level.
Yeah, exactly. So I find that horror is more cathartic, it's like reading a fairy tale. You go into this dark world, and then you come out of it – it's very symbolic visually, and so that's what I really like about horror. I think it's important not to show everything or else it becomes gratuitous, and it's almost sadistic, like visual torture porn, which I think is very deeply disturbing. Though I guess someone could watch Slaxx and be like, “what're you talking about, this is torture porn!” [Laughs.] It's not! It's funny, and absurd and grotesque – you don't think what's happening is really happening.
I do think Alien is really great, and it's still so creepy because you don't see much of the monster – I know it's a classic, but it's true, it's about building that dread where you don't know what's in the forest, or under your bed. It's the dread of not knowing for humans who want certainty. That's why I think COVID is really disturbing for a lot of people in Western societies, because we're used to having predictability and now it's like we don't know what's going to happen next.
I know you got a pair of pants for the film, and I was wondering now the film is finished, who has the pants – do you have the pants?
They are at my producer's office, I've been meaning to go get them, and I haven't yet! [Laughs.] We had 45 pairs of pants, because each of the puppet moves required a different rig, from the close-ups, when it walks toward the camera, away from the camera, when it's dancing – all different pairs of pants. I will have one of them when I get off my butt and go get them.
See I would be scared of having a pair in my house, in case they moved even slightly because I'd be like “Oh, no.”
[Laughs.] That's great! I'd love it if you were scared of having slacks in your house.
So I know you're working on a few things now – you've a nature-takes-revenge script set in Medieval times, a possession script in French, and a solo project ‘A Mid-Life Apocalypse.' They all sound fascinating, and they're all so distinct, so I wanted to ask how do you start a script? How does an idea originate for you?
Well, it depends. It can be reading about something and getting an image or having just a feeling of something. It can also be having mental conversations as characters, there's no one way. Like Slaxx, which was just a joke among friends, and now it's a movie. It can even be a rug, once I lived near a rug shop, and I had an idea for a Turkish epic, and I had to calm myself down. It can really be anything – a visual piece, a character, or a locational mood.
I'm also writing a TV project with Patricia about a vampire living in the suburbs, attempting to pass as human, then his two Communist vampire cousins come to retrieve him, so it explores a clash of civilizations. That was inspired by an article I read about Porphyria, known as ‘the vampire disease', and also by my own attraction/repulsion to the suburbs, so it's these two diametrically opposed things that somehow magnetize together to create this weird thing.
I love the way you describe it – these two weird things coming together to make something even weirder.
So, there seems to finally be a growing recognition of female filmmakers in Horror, you've got the reclamation of Kusama's Jennifer's Body which everyone loves now, Jennifer Kent, Rose Glass, Coralie Fargeat, and of course you – so I wanted to know what your thoughts on the current climate of Horror are.
I think it's great. I think for a long time people didn't think women liked making horror films, but if you think of literature, a lot of women wrote mysteries, which are sort of horrific – there's always someone being killed – Anne Rice is a great example of fantastical Horror literature. So I think women have a dark side, obviously, it's just that we were conditioned to think we don't, and if we do, then we're weird; I remember when I was much younger and I would tell people I wanted to make Horror films, women especially would be like “huh, what's wrong with you?”, and mostly men were like “yes, that's awesome!” So I think it's just the time that women are making more films, and I think female filmmakers in horror are just as needed as male filmmakers – we have to have a balance, the male perspective and the female perspective, like yin and yang. So it's good our society is starting to get back into balance, through all sorts of genres.
What was the last Horror film you saw that you loved?
Ohh, shit, I have to think about that one! Oh, I saw Possessor. My friend Karim [Hussain] was the DP, and I've been hearing about it for years – it was super cool, very disturbing and beautifully shot, very well acted. It was quite perturbing, so I definitely suggest checking it out. Karim's cinematography is genius!
Slaxx releases March 18th, streaming exclusively on Shudder.