Kristy director Oliver Blackburn: “Bring a seatbelt!”

Director Oliver Blackburn talks Kristy, John Carpenter and the state of British horror

Hayley Bennett fights back in Kristy
Hayley Bennett fights back in Kristy

Oliver Blackburn arrived on the genre scene with 2008’s brutal thriller Donkey Punch. Now, he’s back with slasher throwback Kristy, which recalls the horrors of John Carpenter will bringing the genre up to date.

It’s the story of Justine (Haley Bennett), a college student who’s the only one left on campus over Thanksgiving Weekend. After a scary encounter at a gas station, Justine heads back to her dorm room…but is she alone?

We talked to Blackburn before the film’s debut at the BFI London Film Festival to talk about the films that inspire him, why we need another The Descent, and why Assault On Precinct 13 is so important.

How did you get involved with Kristy?

It actually was kind of a stroke of random luck, which was funny because it was called that for a while, I was already aware of the script, it was quite a talked about script and I was in LA and got a call from my agent saying they’re urgently looking for a director on this so I went in and gave my thoughts on it.

It had the seeds of a very bold, dynamic, thrilling type of horror thriller film, which was what I really want to do. Something very cinematic and something that really could be immersive and really take the audience on a thrill ride with it. And that was the sort of film I wanted to make. Another way of looking at that script would have been a very gritty sort of almost found footage-y kind of thing, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. And then two days later I found myself sitting opposite Harvey Weinstein and that was the film he wanted to do, that was what he wanted to produce and we talked a lot about movies. He’s a huge cineaste like I am, so we just connected a lot on things like Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Polanski films and David Fincher films and then I found myself directing this film.

It looks like there’s a strong influence of ’70s and ’80s slashers. Were you deliberately looking to directors like John Carpenter?

Yeah, absolutely John Carpenter.  Assault On Precinct 13 is one of the seminal films of my life. It’s one of those “Holy fuck” moments where you first see that film. And so many things about pacing, music, whenever I hear that soundtrack it triggers something in my mind. So yeah, it was definitely those very, very cinematic classic takes on the genre were very much in my mind and I just felt that the setting of this, which is this big empty campus which is a very very visual, cinematic setting which is another thing that appealed to me very much about it.

It could lend itself to that kind of approach because those people like John Carpenter, they have an incredible sense of space and we think of the tight constricted scary spaces, like the garage in Halloween, but also the wider spaces like the suburban streets of Halloween, you know? The way in which he took something that until then no one had thought of as a frightening place, it was like the American dream, it was lemonade stands and toffee apples, and he turned it into something that was an absolutely terrifying zone. And I saw the same opportunity with Kristy with this campus, you think of frat boys and cheerleaders and The Social Network and inventing Facebook and all that stuff and actually turning that on its head and turning it into this really frightening zone, this killing zone.

kristy-002Is that exploration of darkness something that you feel drawn to?

Yeah, I’m a filmmaker, I’m an artist and certainly my films in cinema have been dark, one of the things that interests me is that line between the light and dark in the world that we live in and how easy it is to stray on either side. And Donkey Punch is the same thing, on the surface it’s this boat, it’s beautiful people, it’s sun, it’s everything that you think of as being great about life, and then suddenly we flip that on its head. And I think it’s very similar with Kristy; it is this kind of beautiful institute of higher learning and somewhere that you think would be very safe and very protected. And just everything I see in life and in my art, you can rely on nothing. Events can change in the drop of a dime.

There are a couple of filmmakers doing it, but that kind of classic slasher movie seems to have disappeared a bit. Were you aware of trying to bring that back?

Yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the dead there, that was exactly what I wanted to do, was to get back to a type of horror filmmaking but also thriller, because I think the second half it’s as much a thriller or an action thriller as it is a horror, and get back to that type. I think there have been incredibly good contained gritty genre films recently. But it’s almost kind of swamped the whole marketplace, that stuff, and I think people, a lot of the horror that I love, we talked about John Carpenter, but even if you go further back, James Whale, Val Lewton and those kinds of people, incredibly both frightening and chilling and incredibly classy pieces of filmmaking. And I really wanted to try and tap into that with this film.

kristy1How did you settle on Haley Bennett for the lead? 

I was a fan of hers and for this character I thought it was really important that we had someone who was a terrific actress and was someone that you could really connect with. Because, here’s the thing, she’s in this relationship with her boyfriend, something about it’s not quite clicking and she decides to stay alone in the college rather than deal with his family who she feels slightly set apart from. And I’ve had awkward situations myself in my life so I think it’s something all of us can relate to and I needed an actress who everyone could relate to, and someone you genuinely feel scared for, who they would genuinely think “I really don’t want this to happen to,” rather than your kind of traditional horror scream queen. I’d seen Kaboom, I’d seen some other work of hers, she just gave a couple of phenomenal auditions and it just felt like she was really, really right for the role and part of it was that she was coming out of a lot of really interesting dramatic work and you know maybe was less used to the genre but was going to be less kind of caught up in genre clichés.

What do you think of the state of British horror at the moment? Do you keep tabs on it?

Yeah, I try and keep up with everything in the genre, Britain, Asia, all over the place. I think that Britain is interesting…I think Britain’s actually in pretty good shape compared to where it has been in the past, I think we are due another Descent or for that matter Donkey Punch, something that just really shakes things up and that people notice. It’s not British but the most exciting indie genre film I saw recently was this film called Coherence. And I think, that’s the type of film that I think we should be thinking of here and we can be making that type of film here. Something really smart, challenging but also involving genre that really pushes the boundaries but is done in a smart way so it’s actually very makeable and quite cheap.

It did feel like we had a really good run back in the late noughties…

Well there was Eden Lake and The Children, and The Descent had been just before that, so yeah there was a lot of stuff.

How does it feel having Kristy at the London Film Festival?

Yeah, it’s really…I’m a Londoner, I’ve never had a film at the London Film Festival yet, so it’s really sweet. And also I’ve been directing this TV show that’s playing right now called Glue, so it’s kind of like, I did this film in America, my first American film, and kind of got to know the American system and it’s come back here, and it’s premiering here which is awesome and I’m also doing this fantastic, very British very groundbreaking TV show as well, so it feels really good.

Kristy2Do you think you’ll stay in the horror genre?

Yeah, I mean, it’s what fascinates me. The great thing about genre is when you’re making genre films, whether it’s horror or science fiction or thrillers, you’re kind of dealing with this area where really interesting ideas and concepts meet really visceral drama and entertainment. So with Kristy this whole thing of this very secure, protected place, what happens when there are no rules and there is no protection. And it’s something that I think we all think about. And I love that, I feel very comfortable exploring that and working there. So I don’t know about, I definitely have got a couple of science fiction ideas and a lot of thriller ideas that explore that territory, and that’s big territory as well, there’s a lot of exploration to be done there.

Thank you very much, I’m really looking forward to seeing the film!

I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Bring a seatbelt with you; you’re going to be jumping a lot!

Kristy played at the BFI London Film Festival and does not currently have a UK release date. You can keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.