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Gia Elliot talks Take Back the Night (The FH Interview)

9 min read

is a film that is hard to define, a monster film about a young woman's attack by a creature that leads to something much bigger than herself. Jane's journey against a supernatural beast is as much about sexual violence towards women as it is a thrilling horror story. Co-writer / director sat down to discuss the film and it's deeper meanings with FilmHounds.

This film feels like it defies genre, it's sort of a horror film, it's a bit of a social commentary, it's a bit of a character study. How would you define the genre and tone of the film?

I've been describing it as a RiotGirl Creature Feature or a Cool Girl horror movie. I love horror movies because of the life or death stakes, you get to really see character in the Aristotle “character is action” essentially. So I think the fact that it's also a character speaks to the strength of the genre and what's possible when you have that. There are no higher stakes. Except maybe in an action movie when it's the fate of the world. But when it's life or death you get to show off who you really are.

When you're making a film that's dealing with such an intense and upsetting subject matter, how do go about making sure the set, the people are looked after emotionally?

It was a collaboration between me and Emma Fitzpatrick, who brilliantly stars in the film. It started as a book club, we discovered a mutual interest in the implications of sexual violence laws, how it was written. I had been the law school and had seen a few cases and how it was written. The way that the laws are written in the States, how a coma can really change the meaning of a statue and how the law is applied, and Emma was interested in studying trauma psychology and what happens to your brain when your experience trauma, and what the road to recovery looks like. Then Angela Gulner who plays the sister, she has her MFA from Harvard, is very intellectual and had been engaging in these kinds of conversations with us early on. 

So I feel like it wasn't one person's mission to tell this dark thing, it was a collaboration between every single person on set. Because of that I felt like the inherent way our set was structured, and how our film was structured, everyone got to contribute and say their piece. So I guess the way we looked after people and their psychology was to make sure they had a space to be heard.

There's been a lot of talk about creating safe spaces on set when you're dealing with this subject matter, it can be emotionally draining. I can't imagine it was a fun set to be on for the most part, with some of the more upsetting scenes.

Well we shot 70% of it before we got any money at all. I taught myself to use the camera, my other producer Kwanza Gooden was running around with a boom. Emma and Angela did their own make-up. Emma did her own special effects make-up, for the most part, the bruises on her face and the cut on her eye. It was late night cinema club, it was a joy. We were spending nights and weekends working on this. So, it was kind of joyful. Then the times when we did have the funding, the eight official days we had to cram a lot in. What we did was we went to the set ahead of time, we did a full block, I had the camera, I walked the actors through the shot order so they knew what to expect on the day, so because of that we worked really fast on the day. Then I would set aside fifteen minutes at the end just ask the crew if there's anything, if there's anything I missed. So everyone could have their say in how we tell the story.

Now any film that deals with female trauma is referred to as a post-MeToo film, which I feel is a little bit reductive to films that came out before 2016 that have been dealing with these issues. But in terms of the film industry, how do you feel the movement has made making films about this subject? Do you feel it's more palatable or is there still a “ooh we don't want to make a film about these issues”?

Man, that's tricky. I think some of how trendy it got to say the exact right thing created some commodification around what I think is a really important issue, and is like you said a little reductive. So I kind of try not to engage, I came to this from a place of first hand experience having seen how these play out in the legal system. I just wanted to say something, I didn't have a huge agenda in mind. My goal was for people to leave the theatre and turn to their friend and say “what did you think”? Then debate with each other, just get people talking. 

Most intelligent people would agree that lawyers in court should not be arguing that someone's fingernails are not torn off enough to prove trauma, to prove violence. So, I thought I could create something that was a friendly open door, anyone who walks through this is welcome to. You may get it wrong, you might say the wrong thing which is why I created this very helpful metaphor in a monster to explore what you're working through. I believe people are fundamentally good, we accidentally hurt each other's feelings. 

I've been working on this film for a very long time, in 2016 we were actually in the edit, I had some footage. So when the story broke I was cutting footage I thought “this is so cool, people are waking up to this”, but I didn't think a wave of people would, but I guess it make sense since it's on their minds.

You mention metaphor, what I was reminded of was the Guillermo del Toro quote about The Devil's Backbone where he said “I want the ghost story to be a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War and the civil war to be a metaphor for the ghost story”. I think the same applies here, the monster is a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence against women is a metaphor for the monster. Were you concerned about showing too much or too little of the monster itself?

I never thought I'd get to show any because I never thought I'd have any money. When we did get money the option was to show two shots of a huge monster. But when I'm examining my own reaction to film, if I see a perfectly CGI rendering of a snake, which is something I'm afraid of in the real world, I don't go to bed scared. But if I see a snake in the pet store, I go to bed scared. Fundamentally I just know it's fake. So I was more inspired by films that did it cool, instead of did it photo-realistic.

At one point I was considering approaching this real cool Paper Mache artist who has a studio in Downton Los Angeles and make giant puppets, but I was too worried it would be like Sesame Street or something. 

You can't dance around it too much, I wanted it to be definitely, clearly a monster by the end so you can't not show it. You have to show it a bit, so it was tricky to dial in how much or how little. I think we have a pretty generous amount.

The moment that freaked me out the most when Jane is doing the on-air – which I thought was the most upsetting scene in the film, it's very hard to watch – but it was the bit where the hand touches her face when she has a flashback.

I thought the monster could be more than the literal creature that attacks, that it could be a presence in her life. The part that freaked you out is probably the thing that most of us are affected by which is the PTSD or the times it creeps in when you don't it to, it's this burden.

Arrow Films

You co-wrote the film with Emma Fitzpatrick, how hard or easy does that make directing with the film when you know the lead has had a hand in creating the story?

It was great, honestly, I felt we were aligned in telling the story. I trusted her feedback on set when she felt something was off or didn't feel right. When she would push back, or we would collaborate, I would trust her. I think it taught me to trust my actors. I think there's something special in knowing they've had a hand in creating the thing. I think that in general.

I've been on a few sets where there's the omniscient director who shouts down orders to the masses “do this, do that, again but sadder” and then I watch the actors react and I think I don't know that you're making art together, you're making art despite each other. I like the level of intimacy. 

Also I was holding the camera, so it felt like this live wire between the two of us. 

The entire cast is comprised of women, was that a conscious decision to remove the inherent idea that men don't believe women and to examine society, or was it just a practical thing that it was easier to get women?

It was so many things. I do want to put a big asterisk, that we don't see male faces but we do see other bodies that are not male. A lot of the cast are uterus or non-binary woman. But the main thing was I'm really tired of seeing first act: heroic guy in some sort of heroic scene with the women in his life. First act break: one of these women is sexually assaulted, heroes journey begins. Then it's the guy looking for redemption.

I'm just so tired of that story, I'm more curious about the violence that exists and how we treat each other. I do think there's a vague sentiment that women who talk about violence against women hate men, and it's really no where near the purpose of the conversation. So I thought what happens if we take them out and give the people most affected the floor, and ride it out to the end.

And just a little bit about why a monster, once you introduce a person who commits this crime you are curious what made them do this. Once you introduce a villain you want to know the psychology of why, and how can I prevent this for myself. I really didn't care to explore that, I really wanted to hone in on the violence we inflict on each other. 

I watched this after after watching the first episode of the Jeffrey Dahmer series on Netflix and it's interesting that this follows the victim, you're with the victim the whole time. Whereas that is something that gives the person who assaults and kills people airtime. It definitely felt like a mission statement to be “no, we talk about the victim not the perpetrator”.

I also think anyone recovering from this is on a heroes journey. We have moments in our lives that radically change us because they were awful, and the journey to figuring out what to do with your life and your allies is so hard. At the end of the day it's a monster movie so you could insert yourself with any violence or types of trauma.

One of the moments that stood out to me was when the young lady approached Jane and said “I believe you” and it brought her back from the brink. 

In my life I've had so many unlikely moments, where people just throw me a bone when I need it the most. They had no idea, it cost them nothing. So really what I hope people take away from that moment is that if you have the impulse to do something that is kind, there might be a reason that is larger than you that you don't know. 

Arrow Video will release Take Back the Night on special edition Blu-Ray in the UK on 10th October 2022.