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WiHM: An Interview with Luchina Fisher

Kicking off Women in Horror Month we welcome Luchina Fisher. Luchina is a filmmaker, writer, director, and producer. Her short film Danger Word was the inspiration for us at Dead Celluloid Towers to actively support and promote short film - that was over four years ago. Since then she has gone on to co-write and produce Birthright: A War Story.

Danger Word was a ground breaking moment for us – it spawned our commitment to short horror. Tell us, what was it like creating a low budget, short horror? And it is, by the way, spectacularly good.

Thank you so much! It’s so rewarding for me to hear how it inspired Dead Celluloid. When you’re making a film, you hope for but never know its impact in the world until you release it.  “Danger Word” grew out of my and my friends’ desire to make our own film and not wait for someone else’s green light to do it. I had been working as a writer and journalist for years and made several television documentaries — on Gladys Knight, B.B. King and the history of women in sports. But I always had my own stories I wanted to tell. So in 2011, I wrote and directed the short film “Death in the Family” from my own childhood experience. It got some press and was accepted by a couple film festivals, and even took home a prize. The film inspired my best friend Tananarive Due, the American Book Award-winning horror and speculative fiction author and her husband, fellow award-winning speculative fiction author Steven Barnes. Several of Tanana’s books and short stories had been optioned in Hollywood but none had reached the green light stage. When she saw what I was able to do independently, she said let’s make a film together. So it all started with the word — a great script. She and Steve adapted an episode from their 2102 young adult novel “Devil’s Wake,” and asked me to direct. For me, a great horror movie conveys something about our own fears of being in the world. Reading Tanana and Steve’s script, I was immediately struck by the sense of loss and isolation in a world turned upside down and the love that ultimately allows our young protagonist to prevail. Those are themes I return to in my own life and work. I knew that with a shoestring budget and two shooting days, we didn’t have a lot of money or time to spend on creating that post-apocalyptic world, but if we could convey those feelings to the audience, then we would succeed. So casting was crucial (more on that later). And so was location. We used a friend’s farm up in the New York Catskills, complete with an amazing barn and a separate house where some of the crew could stay while we filmed. I brought in Zainab Ali, my executive producer from “Death in the Family,” to assist and Eric Schneider, who was the camera assistant, to be the director of photography. We hired recent makeup and effects graduates Anthony Reyes and Rachael Wagner, both of whom went on to successful careers and stints on the FX special effect reality show “Face Off.” Of course, even with the best-laid plans, the unexpected happens. Even though we were shooting over the long Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, we arrived to cold driving rain, sleet and snow flurries, so we had to flip the schedule and shot all the interior scenes the first day, heating up this huge barn as best we could. Fortunately, the sun came out the next day and we shot all of our exteriors and even wrapped before sundown. Even with such an intense schedule, the set was relaxed and familial — Tanana and I even brought our kids. Yes, that’s them in the road scene. I think that feeling on the set was part of the alchemy that became “Danger Word.”

In the years since, movies like Schwarzenegger’s ‘Maggie’ have tackled scenarios in similar ways. How do you feel by being a leader in the field?

Well, it feels great — imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! I had no idea that we were ahead of the curve. After we finished “Danger Word,” we discussed developing it into a longer feature. Because of its success, it got interest from Tonya Lewis Lee, the wife of Spike Lee and a producer. She optioned the book, so we decided to pursue other ideas. But, alas, Tananarive and I still have to make that feature!

The cast is excellent – especially Saoirse Scott – but as a film maker, did you foresee issues having a young female protagonist? 

There’s an old adage in Hollywood about not working with children or animals. And yet, I did both with my first film, a 60-second commercial that I wrote and directed as a film and television student at the University of Bristol in England. The film went on to win second prize in the UK Kodak commercial competition. I’ve always been comfortable working with young people. I knew who I wanted for Kendra right away — she was then a 13-year-old up-and-coming Hollywood child actress; today she’s a star with several leading roles in films this year alone! We were in talks with her when I sent the script to Frankie Faison. I was on the commuter train heading home when Frankie called to tell me he loved the script because it showed something you don’t see on film everyday, the relationship between a black grandfather and his granddaughter. He was in! Days later, I was on my way to the location for some pre-production when I got word that our deal with the young actress fell through. Now I was scrambling to find someone. There were few working young black actresses at that time who fit the bill, but Saoirse’s name popped up on IMDb. She had worked for years on the soap “One Life to Live,” so I knew she would be comfortable in front of the camera. But could she carry such an emotional lead role? We did a Skype audition with her and asked her to cry on cue. We were blown away. Saoirse has an amazing ability to convey emotions with her eyes without saying a word. She and her mom Róisín Timmins O'Dea, who is from Ireland, were also a joy to work with and became part of our on-set family. Frankie immediately took Saoirse under his wing and they had a natural chemistry together, which you see in the final film.

Do you feel that Hollywood is still a patriarchal business, and that women are not given the opportunities that they deserve? 

Hollywood grew out of the white male patriarchy, but like so many other institutions in America,  it too is changing. Like Ava DuVernay, one of my role models and a friend, I wasn’t waiting for Hollywood to change before making my own films. Fortunately, technology, crowd sourcing and new content models have given women and minorities like me more avenues to make their own films. And there’s a diverse audience out there hungering for content that reflects their lives. Hollywood seems to be the last place to recognize that, but it’s happening — slowly. The success of films like “Black Panther,” “Moonlight,” and “Lady Bird” can not be overlooked. But I’m not going to wait for Hollywood to give me an opportunity. I’m going to create my own opportunities — and I think other women need to be doing the same. And when Hollywood catches up (and they are starting to), I’ll be here and ready!

You’re both writer and producer of the documentary Birthright: A War Story, which looks terrifying, honestly. Tell us about working in fact over fiction.

It is terrifying because it’s true. Hulu picked up our film to go alongside their Emmy-winning series “The Handmaid’s Tale” because our film has been billed the “real-life Handmaid’s Tale.” What’s more, my partner and dear friend, director Civia Tamarkin, and I finished the film before the 2016 presidential election, so when it was released in theaters in the summer of 2017, even we were shocked at how prescient it was. Some stories are just better told factually. In “Birthright: A War Story,” it was important to hear directly from women and their families about how these hundreds of laws, passed by states over the decades and aimed at bring Roe v. Wade down, were affecting every aspect of their pregnancies and lives. I began my career as a journalist, so it was natural that my entry into filmmaking would be through documentaries. But my love for visual storytelling goes back to a childhood spent in movie theaters, and I always knew that one day I would be making my own narrative features. In the latter, there’s a sense of having more control over the story that you’re telling/creating than in documentary, where you may not be sure what the story is until it emerges. Both offer their own element of magic, surprises and challenges. What’s great is to see filmmakers like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay moving between fact and fiction and nobody blinks anymore.

Do you think that women, both in front of, and behind, the camera disquiet those who believe that they traditionally have the right of decision making in the industry? 

I have certainly encountered men on set who had a hard time taking orders from a woman (not to mention a black woman!), but I’ve encountered many more who were terrific to work with. And they are the ones I work with again. Generally, when there’s a woman at the helm, the entire production is more inclusive. So if women, in front of and behind the camera, are disrupting the norms in the industry, that is a good thing, because we are in a period of great change. Women’s voices and people of color are leading the change, and guess what, we are finally being heard. “This is a moment for black female storytellers,” former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth recently stated. And I have a lot of stories to tell.

Will you be returning to fiction any time soon (we miss you)? 

Awww! Of course, I will be. There are some stories that are simply told better from a fictional place. I am actually working on the screenplay for a narrative feature that is also drawn from my life. And yes, I plan to direct it. I can’t wait to share more about it soon!

Thank you for talking with us, Luchina!

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