Roxanne Benjamin talks Southbound and making female-driven horror

Southbound’s Roxanne Benjamin on anthology horrors, XX, We Summon The Darkness and Creepshow 2

Roxanne Benjamin (image via TIFF Midnight Madness Blog)

Indie horror fans will definitely recognise Roxanne Benjamin’s name. As a producer, she’s worked on some of the best genre movies of the last few years, including the V/H/S movies, Riley Stearns’ Faults and Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy.

Now, she’s made the jump to directing, starting with excellent horror anthology Southbound. In the desert-set chiller, her story finds a band stranded when their van breaks down. The three girls hitch a ride with a slightly creepy couple and accept their offer to spend the night at their home, but something is definitely wrong…

We spoke to Benjamin about making the jump to directing, why the desert is the perfect place to set a horror movie, how producing was her film school, and her upcoming projects, including We Summon The Darkness and XX

How did Southbound come about?

It usually starts with [producer] Brad Miska being like “Guys, why aren’t we making a movie?” He’s really good at galvanizing the troops and getting us all together, and then it was all of us filmmakers getting in a room and just coming with the idea. We came up with the world itself and then came up with how to fit stories in it, so it was much more like a TV writers’ room.

I think that’s one of the things we learned on the V/H/S movies. The first one was a little more punk rock, we were just kind of rolling with it and putting it together as we went, and then with the second one we were connecting everyone a little bit earlier and having people share their rough cuts. With this one we all built it from the ground up. Everybody was on everybody else’s production, we had directors team-directing the crossover points.

And had you always planned on directing a segment?

Totally! That was one of my stipulations: “Only if I can direct.” I had been working for the production companies that had financed the V/H/S movies but I was also the head of acquisitions for the horror label that Brad and I were doing, Bloody Disgusting Selects, and head of development, so I had a full time job on top of that. I was leaving Keith and Jess Calder’s company Snoot at the time, so I actually had the time that I’d be able to do that creatively.

Fabianne Therese, Hannah Marks and Nathalie Love in Southbound
Fabianne Therese, Hannah Marks and Nathalie Love in Southbound

Where did the story for ‘Siren’ come from?

Well, it’s kind of ‘Who’s out on the road?’ Touring bands was the first one I thought of. I lived in Nashville for a great number of years so a lot of the people that I interacted with were musicians who were out on tour all the time, living in vans. So I had a lot of those stories to draw from on. That, and we were all so influenced by Twilight Zone and EC Comics and just hadn’t really seen a lot of that tone set out in the desert. It’s so funny because we’re all living out in LA and we all fly other places to shoot things. You just go an hour out of Los Angeles and you’re in this crazy beautiful place. I want to set more stuff there for sure.

Had you always conceived it as being a story about three female characters?

Oh yeah, totally. Some of my favourite movies are Heavenly Creatures and Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, and then I had become obsessed with We Are The Best. I feel like I don’t have enough of those kinds of stories, female-driven coming of age stories. There’s all the male-driven ones, so that was definitely was something I wanted to bring!

How was it working with the actors to create their relationship?

I wanted them to bond, so the first night we went out and I made them sing karaoke together in this dive bar. All those Polaroids that are in the van were photos that we took when I made them sing karaoke! I had them stay together in this house out in the desert which everyone became convinced was haunted. They stayed there for one night and left, and then Susan Burke my co-writer and her husband Matt Peters stayed there the next night, and they lost it and left, no one would stay in this house! There were all these weird cat paintings all over the place and there was one room that was nothing but dollhouses. There was literally an anatomical skeleton model in one of the closets; we were like “WHAT IS THIS? WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?”

You’re out in the middle of the desert too, and it gets so creepy, you really don’t see any lights or any other people. The house was three miles from the nearest neighbour. And then Anessa [Ramsey], poor Anessa, came in while we were off on a night shoot, so she got in and she was the only one in the house, and I was like “We’re off for the night, by the way, everybody thinks this house is haunted. Call us if you need anything but the reception’s spotty, so…” And we just left her there! She got so freaked out that she drove back to LA and just came back in the morning! Poor Anessa.

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What are the challenges of making a short segment as opposed to a feature?

There are parts that are easier and parts that are harder. There are certain stories that can’t sustain a full feature that you can have fun with in a short. I think that’s a big part of the reason why a lot of short stories end up being morality tales. If you’re doing that in a feature it just seems hokey, or it seems like 90 minutes for you to get to a punch line of “Whelp, this is what happens when you hit and run!”

The harder part is trying to make people care about the character in a short amount of time and to get them invested in the story, so it’s not just like we’re waiting for this person to die. That’s the balance you have to strike.

Did working on the V/H/S movies feel like good preparation for this?

I didn’t go to film school, I did focus on story and writing in school, which I think helped me in the development side, but my film school was really making those movies with all of what I think are the most talented up and coming horror directors over the last couple of years. Being on set with them, and seeing how they work and just learning on the ground with them. So I felt very prepared, and really the best possible safety net you can have is: I’m surrounded by seven directors!

And next up you’re directing We Summon The Darkness! Can you tell us anything about that?

It also has three girls at the centre of it, it’s set in the world of heavy metal in the 80s so it’s going to be a fun one. So if there’s anyone out there who wants to give us bags of money, Scrooge McDuck-style, we’re ready to make that one!

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You also co-wrote Annie Clark’s (otherwise known as St Vincent) XX segment, how was it working with her?

She’s great; it’s going to be awesome. She has an amazing visual aesthetic and for a first time director, she knows exactly what she wants. And she’s great working with actors, it was a great experience.

XX is an anthology with all female writers and you’ve spoken about the need to make female-driven stories; does it feel like the situation is improving for female filmmakers?

You know what? I don’t honestly feel like it’s improving at all. I don’t often weigh in on this kind of thing because I feel like as soon as you say anything, the only thing that does is allow people to pick away at what you said as if it is a definitive statement, and it’s not because everybody’s experience is different.

But for me, I think it’s great that we’re focusing on the fact that there’s a big disparity there, but I haven’t seen an increase in the number of films on the independent side with female directors because of it. I think the only thing it does is it gets you in a room, so people can say “Oh no, we met with female directors on this but we still went with this person.” So, you know, it’s like “We did our part, we met with someone and talked to them.” That’s great, but put up or shut up.

I don’t think anyone should ever get a project based on their gender or anything else, I think it should be the best qualified person, but I think it is a very big thing to look at. If that’s the case, then you’re either not bringing in the same amount of female filmmakers, or ,if we have less opportunities or we’re less qualified it’s because we haven’t had those chances that other filmmakers have gotten. So it’s more of a systemic problem.

On a more positive note, it does seem like there’s a great community of indie horror filmmakers.

Oh, totally! I don’t know anyone in the independent space that I have met that has not been 100% supportive of their peers. In the indie film genre community everybody’s got each other’s backs. It’s really a fantastic thing to see. It starts from the festival level, all of those guys there are very supportive and they put a spotlight on our work and it’s a pretty cool and unique community to be a part of.

Benjamin worked as a co-producer on Sean Byrne's The Devil's Candy
Benjamin worked as a co-producer on Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy

I did want to ask about your work as a producer as well, Faults is brilliant, and I loved The Devil’s Candy!

Oh, awesome! Sean [Byrne, The Devil’s Candy and The Loved Ones director] is so cool! I want to see him do more features; we need more Sean Byrne features in the world. Yeah, those were great, I was working for Snoot then so it was working under Keith and Jess Calder, they produced those movies, I’m a co-producer on them with Chris Harding who’s a long-time collaborator with them.

So that was definitely like another part of film school for me. One part was working with all of these indie directors and then the second part was working with Keith and Jess. They’re working on much bigger projects than I’d been involved in and just seeing how they handle those situations and how they work with directors and how they develop projects. They’re very talented and very good at what they do.

Obviously you’re focused on directing at the moment but do you think you’ll continue to produce movies too?

I think it’s such a collaborative teamwork thing that I don’t feel that I could just do one without doing the other. Even with projects that I’m attached to direct, it’s hard to not put on the producer hat in the early stages. I think it’s all such a blurred line between what creative producing is and the development side of writing and directing, to me it’s all part of the same mechanism of working with a group of people.

The Raft sequence in Creepshow 2
The Raft sequence in Creepshow 2

Finally, what’s your favourite anthology horror movie?

My favourite? Oh man, that’s rough… I grew up on EC comics so I always think of them first whenever someone mentions anthologies because reading those stories all the time was how my entire obsession with horror came about. Maybe Creepshow 2…I always liked the Creepshow movies. All the Tales From The Crypt.

Here’s the thing too, I grew up on USA Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried watching the weirdest B horror movies and that was my introduction to horror. We didn’t have movie theatres around here that play any kind of repertory stuff so that’s where my tastes came from, watching Tremors in the middle of the night.

The Raft segment in Creepshow 2 is incredible!

Oh yeah, it’s the best part. That’s totally my favourite one. And that’s so the essence of short story-dom as well, that you get away but you don’t. That’s like Southbound in a nutshell right there, you get away but you don’t!

Southbound is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now. Keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.