Why female-focused horror Putney needs your help

Lyle’s Stewart Thorndike on her punk-rock Kickstarter and why horror is a genre for everyone

Gaby Hoffman as Leah in Stuart Thorndike's horror Lyle
Gaby Hoffmann as Leah in Stewart Thorndike’s horror Lyle

Indie horror filmmaker Stewart Thorndike, the writer-director of acclaimed festival favourite Lyle, is currently raising money for her next film Putney via Kickstarter.

If that doesn’t grab your attention, we’d direct you to the fundraising page, where Lyle, a lesbian take on Rosemary’s Baby, is streaming for free as long as the Kickstarter is running.

Thorndike hopes that if you’re impressed with the film, as we were, you’ll want to help her next movie get made. “Well, every Kickstarter is a process of you feel like a hustler and a beggar but you also feel empowered!” laughs the filmmaker. “So I think it’s a wonderful tool.”

Lyle stars the excellent Gaby Hoffmann (Girls, Crystal Fairy And The Magical Cactus) as Leah, a mother pregnant with her second child who moves into a spacious new apartment with her wife Julie (Ingrid Jungerman). When their toddler Lyle dies suddenly, Leah begins to fall apart, suspecting her neighbours of having something to do with her death and becoming increasingly fearful for the life of her unborn child. It’s a sharp, chilly take on the classic tale with a superb performance from Hoffmann, and the 60-minute movie is available to watch for free…for now, to help people get interested in Putney.

“It’s been a cool experiment to see how that plays out,” Thorndike tells us. “Some of the feedback we’ve got from Kickstarter is ‘Oh maybe you’re being a little too Lyle-centric.” I don’t know, it will be interesting to see at the end what people think of it. I think people think it’s really cool to offer our film for free.”

“We made Lyle originally as a webseries so it was always a small scale project with big ideas and a lot of talent behind it. I thought it worked better as a whole piece and we didn’t expect it to be so well received  and in fact after we premiered it we got an envelope box full of interested distributors. We planned to launch it for free online to get the next one made, but all of a sudden we were like ‘Oh, we have an opportunity to actually sell it and make money and have it in theatres!’ So all of a sudden it was a hard decision to release it for free! But we decided it to just pursue our new strategy, our punk rock strategy!”

Writer-director Stewart Thorndike
Writer-director Stewart Thorndike

That next movie is Putney. “My very, very tiny quick sell is ‘A haunted TED Talk’ and that seems to go a long way,” laughs Thorndike. “But it’s about four women who go to the country to connect and what would happen if somebody brings an uninvited guest along who’s crazy.”

The decision to head to Kickstarter for financing for Putney comes from a combination of a desire for full control and Thorndike’s frustration with the conventional fundraising process. “I had had a bad experience trying to raise money for my first film which was a thriller called Tacoma,” she remembers. “Even when we got great people attached and we had amazing crew, we still couldn’t get the funding and people just didn’t care about a female-driven genre film. So we just decided when we made Lyle, the reason we were doing it as a web series was I just wanted to make something and I wanted to control it and I didn’t want to ask anybody’s permission to make it. And so we just made it with whatever scrappy resources we had and we pulled it off really fast and we had really talented people working on it because they were a lot them were kind of attached to Tacoma.”

Like Lyle, Putney is a horror movie that’s self-described as “female-focused,” which Thorndike tells us she has had to fight to convince people there’s an audience for. “It totally took me by surprise because I’ve always been attracted to horror and dark things and I just never gave it a second thought,” she tells us. “When I was doing press for Lyle I was amazed at how many people brought up ‘Oh, you’re the only female horror director that I can think of,’ or ‘There are very few,’ and that had not occurred to me at all. I feel like there is an audience, I feel like every human on the planet needs a little horror. No matter who you are, you crave the fear, philosophies and fears explored and tested on a grand scale, to their extremes.”

“My little theory that I am toying around with is that men have kind of had the monopoly on horror for a long time and so they’ve kind of branded it into a certain thing that I actually don’t like and it’s kind of geared towards a younger male audience. Maybe if we had a lot of different types of horror we’d see a lot more different kinds of diverse audiences and age groups.”

Thorndike tells us that there’s certainly an issue of under-representation when it comes to LGBTQ genre movies. “Yeah, for sure. I feel like there’s a whole slew of LGBT movies that make that the whole topic, the whole point of the film and I just think that they should be represented in movies in a normalised way, that that’s not the topic.” Indeed, the topic of Lyle is the emotional trauma of the central character, beautifully brought to life by Hoffmann.

Home is where the horror is in Lyle
Home is where the horror is in Lyle

However, Thorndike tells us that she didn’t set out to make a spin on the Polanski classic. “I was breaking up with my girlfriend and babies were on my mind because it’s one of the reasons we broke up,” she remembers. “So I don’t think I was drawn to grief, more to losing a baby. The theme of not having a baby and a partner would be the reason that I didn’t get one. I didn’t set out to do a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, I kind of wrote this story really quickly and then looked at it and thought ‘I have just done a version of Rosemary’s Baby,’ so I just went with it.”

One of the most effective elements of Lyle is the sense of the safe becoming unsafe, as Leah becomes paranoid and her home becomes a place of fear. “I’ve always been horrified when things were too nice,” Thorndike tells us. “Like J. Crew catalogues. I don’t know if you guys have J. Crew, like Marks and Spencer’s catalogues! When I’m trying to think of things that scare me it’s never ‘In the dark with a monster in the closet.’ It’s a little bit like ‘What if the person you trusted the most turned on you?’ Or what if you weren’t safe in your own home in the middle of the day? My entry point into filmmaking is something that I’m trying to understand or something that kind of makes me feel uncomfortable and nervous and I want to explore it. So it’s always about a philosophy or a feeling. I think I just like exaggeration and I don’t like to whisper my stories, I like them to be big.”

“I never think of what the genre is, I’m always just kind of thinking about, like, ‘Why does intimacy freak me out so much?’ or something like that or I’ll have some tiny little idea of a story that turns me on that keeps gnawing at me and then I try and understand why that story haunts me. So far I haven’t ever wanted to make just a straight drama and I think that’s because my visually I like things to go to a more heightened altered space, I like things that are more visually challenging and liberating.”

LYLE still.jpeg
Gaby Hoffmann is a mother under pressure in Lyle

In terms of influences, Thorndike certainly casts a wide net. “You work really hard to find your own style and I feel like you just borrow from a thousand different people and then all of a sudden you have this hodgepodge that’s your own,” she tells us. ” I really like movement and realism so the horror films that I love are The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and The Innocents, and the directors that I love are like Mike Leigh, Altman, Polanski, of course Stanley Kubrick. I’m actually in a Stanley Kubrick film. [Eyes Wide Shut] It was crazy. Woody Allen I love, I actually really like Jonathan Demme and Peter Weir. They know how to move the camera and create great atmosphere. Silence Of The Lambs is just exquisite, it looks so good. I just watched The Manchurian Candidate and the cinematography in it is just so cool. I love Michael Mann and those kind of heavy handed Eighties noir movies too, I really love Basic Instinct. I love Nicholas Ray, I love William Wyler, I love John Ford, I love [Elia] Kazan. I’m crazy for Kazan. So it’s kind of endless and it’s not that original. Oh, I love Fassbinder, he’s a huge influence, Claude Chabrol. So that’s a very vague list. I really like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Oh and I also love The Fly with Vincent Price, throwing one to England!”

As much as she’s enthusiastic about the total creative control afforded by crowd-funding, Thorndike tells us that she definitely has the desire to work with a studio-sized budget. “Yes,” she deadpans. “I have a monster movie called Bad Thoughts that I want to do that’s a big budget movie, it’s sort of about Prospect Park where I live in Brooklyn, and I have a third movie which is called Daughter about witches. And then I have Tacoma which is my real estate thriller. There’s nothing supernatural about it.”

For now, though, Thorndike is focused on Putney, which has a week left to go on Kickstarter at the time of writing. “We’re taking it down in a week so people only have a week to watch it for free. So if they wanna watch it…” We recommend that you do.

Visit the Putney Kickstarter to watch Lyle and to learn more about Putney.