CULTURE

Live From Toronto: Meet Julia Ducournau and Ana Lily Amirpour, the Chic Women Changing the Face of Horror Movies

These directors are elevating the genre, and look great doing it.

Written by Allyson Shiffman
Photographed by Caitlin Cronenberg

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Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

When Julia Ducournau took the stage at the midnight Toronto International Film Festival screening of her film Raw on Monday night, she acknowledged that she does not look like your typical horror filmmaker. “They’re usually a lot hairier,” she said.

Dressed in a slinky black dress and bedazzled Louboutin stilettos but in an effortless Frenchwoman way, she looked more like a leading lady than the writer-director of a film so gory it had audience members wincing and shielding their eyes. And this particular late night audience welcomed — even clapped for — blood and guts.

Ducournau, along with festival darling Ana Lily Amirpour, whose latest film The Bad Batch also thrilled audiences at TIFF, are changing the face of horror, not only by subverting the notion that gore is best left to the men, but also by creating films that are more than just gratuitous violence porn. While Hollywood views the genre as B-movie cash cows, these writer-directors are elevating horror to acclaimed fodder for the film festival circuit. Just ask the jury: Raw claimed an International Critic’s Prize at Cannes and The Bad Batch earned a Special Jury Prize in Venice.

As filmmakers, the two women have a lot in common. Both favor special effects over CGI. Both are prone to layering synth-heavy electronic music over their goriest scenes. Both employ a biting humor, sometimes literally. In fact, both Raw and The Bad Batch deal with cannibalism. However, the ways in which they approach storytelling, visually and through dialogue, is what makes them unique, equally compelling young talents.

Written in English and featuring an eclectic cast of crowd-pleasers including Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey, Amirpour’s Bad Batch is sure to find a wider audience than her acclaimed 2014 Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Described by the director as “a psychedelic Western,” the film is centered around Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who finds herself cast out of mainstream society, as part of a “Bad Batch,” and left to fend for herself in a mesmerizing Mad Max-esque landscape, ridden with cannibals who quickly devour her arm and leg.

While it’s easy to draw parallels to immigration policy and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, the story stems from a more personal experience. “I started writing it at a time when my reality and my personal life were going through a lot of savage changes, and whenever that happens you sort of re-figure out who you are,” she said. “So I had this picture of a girl in the middle of desert missing an arm and a leg and bleeding, but still alive. How she would go on and make it? That’s how I felt at the time.”

To figure out how to remove Waterhouse’s limbs with minimal CGI, Amirpour turned to her “special effects guru magician” Tony Gardner. “We built a nub — a piece [Suki] wore on her body — and her arm would be behind her, and then we removed the arm,” she explained. “What you see looks really fleshy and real.”

Ducournau, on the other hand, turned outward, towards her imagined audience, to find inspiration for her French coming of age cannibal film Raw. “I wanted to make a movie that subverts the audience’s morals by making them like a character that suddenly started acting in a way that we would construe as inhuman,” she says. “So I thought about the three taboos of humanity: murder, incest and cannibalism.” The director quickly scrapped murder (“You see it in every movie”) and incest (“Way too dark for me”) and settled on cannibalism, which fit with her preoccupation with the human body.

Set in the horrific environment of “frosh week” — traditionally, a weeklong Canadian collegiate bacchanal, more or less — the story follows a veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier) as a series of extreme hazing rituals transform her from an introverted vegetarian to a hedonistic party girl with an insatiable thirst for human flesh. What appears onscreen is brilliantly horrifying (and occasionally LOL), but Ducournau likened production to summer camp, during which the crew was eager to dip their fingers in fake blood and feed on fake flesh (it’s made from the same stuff as Gummy Bears).

Female characters in horror films are often there to be scantily clad and brutally murdered, but Amirpour and Ducournau grant their protagonists nuanced arcs and, whether eating or being eaten, a badass sensibility. Evidently it’s time to rethink the look of horror films and horror directors, but for those who aren’t ready for that, Ducournou is offering to bridge the mental gap. “I haven’t shaved in a couple of weeks,” she said.

Live From TIFF: Meet the Beautiful Stars of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival

Rebecca Hall, Christine: “The reason why Christine Chubbuck is in anyone’s consciousness is because in 1974 she was a newscaster in Sarasota, Florida, who went live on air and killed herself. The film is roughly the two weeks before the event, and it’s a filmmaker’s attempt to humanize something that would otherwise be just consigned to shock and horror. I think of it as a film about sensationalism that is in no way sensationalistic. It’s very humanistic.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Ziyi Zhang, TIFF juror: “No, I’m not nervous [to be on the jury]. You’re nervous when you’re being judged! I’m sure all twelve movies are good and very artistic. We watched two yesterday, and I’m very happy with them.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Liev Schreiber, The Bleeder: “Everybody knows what a gutsy actress Naomi [Watts, his wife] is; I don’t think many people know how funny she is. I really loved seeing her play Linda [in The Bleeder] because Linda is such a firecracker — she’s from Bedstuy, she’s Brooklyn Italian… She’s got style, very different from Naomi’s. And Naomi went for it, she loves that stuff, and she did such a great job.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Miles Teller, Bleed For This: “It was about eight months from the time I got [the role] to when I shot. When I got the part I was 188 pounds and 19% body fat. Gor shooting I got down to 160 pounds and 6%. It was just a lot of diet. Towards the end, I was doing four hours boxing, two hours of weights, an hour of accent/dialect and then getting massaged. So it was pretty intense.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Dan Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”: “It was our first season and I was driving down Sunset Blvd. and I saw [the billboard for the show]. You’re in one of those weird situations where you’re in your car but you really have to stop and take it in. So I sort of just slowed down. There was a lineup of cars honking but I was like, ‘You know what? This is my moment and I’m going to hold up Sunset for a second.’”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Laura Carmichael, A United Kingdom: “I’ve admired [Rosamund Pike’s] work for a long time, so I was excited to be playing her sister. I have some experience playing sisters [from her time on ‘Downton Abbey’, as Edith Crawley] and when you do, it just means you get to hang out with really awesome women and pretend to be really close — and by that nature you do become quite close. But [my character] Muriel is a hundred times sweeter than Edith. Both sexy characters, obviously.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Vanessa Bayer, Carrie Philby: “Some journalists are more serious than others, so during some of the press this weekend I would interrupt [co-star] Bel [Powley] to make a joke, and she wouldn’t mind at all, but the person interviewing us would be like, ‘Who is this girl?’”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Lou Gossett, Jr., King of the Dancehall: “I keep my [dance moves] to myself. They asked me, ‘Do you think that you can dance?’ I’m a former athlete, but I can’t do that shit no more. My ego and my mind says, ‘Yeah, let’s try it!’ But I don’t think so.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Mitzi Ruhlmann, Boys in the Trees: “We were all kind of at an age where we were going through a lot of things similar to our characters. We were almost coming of age at the same time. I feel really lucky to have had the film to make sense of that time of my life for me.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Andrew Scott, Handsome Devil: “[When I was in school] I was good at the stuff I was interested in, and I was terrible at the stuff that I wasn’t interested in. I was big into drawing and painting. I liked a bit of sport as well, but I think what happens to kids is they feel like they have to choose either/or, but actually you’re allowed to do both if you want to.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Sarah Gadon: “Caitlin [Cronenberg] has such a close relationship with and appreciation for film. She’s been an on set stills photographer and worked on every milestone film I’ve ever made, from Cosmopolis to Enemy, so we’ve been kind of shadowing each other’s careers, not even on purpose.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Bryce Dallas Howard, Netflix’s “Black Mirror”: “I have been in the past plagued by terrible, constant nightmares that range from ‘Walking Dead’ to ‘Black Mirror.’ I’ve actually done hypnosis to try to get read of these dreams. A year ago, I watched ‘Black Mirror’. This is truly the representation of all of me my deepest fears and anxieties. This is going to sound very actressy of me, but I sent a video of me melting down to the therapist who did the hypnosis, and I was crying and I was like, ‘Doctor, I’ve taken a nosedive!’ So I didn’t watch any more. And then, before the end of last year, Joe Wright, the director, reached out to me with this, which of course was a no-brainer. When I arrived in South Africa to shoot it, it was exactly a year to the week of when that happened, and the title of the episode is ‘Nosedive.’ I showed [Joe] this video; we couldn’t believe it.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion: “My mother was a huge fan [of Emily Dickinson], so we had a record in our house of Julie Harris reading selected poems and letters, which I listened to a lot.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Mark Duplass, Blue Jay: “I have two high school sweethearts. I don’t see them very often but every now and then we come across each other or hear a story about each other or, god forbid, I open up one of my fucking journals from the mid-90s. I’ll immediately make fun of myself, and then I immediately go, ‘Wait, that sort of overly confident, completely un-jaded person is somebody I really miss.’ So then I get all sad about it, and that was really what the soup of the movie was.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Angela Sarafyan, The Promise: “I’m a huge fan of Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. Most of my stuff is with Oscar and it’s so much fun working with him. We kind of had the freedom to find what we wanted to do in each scene. [Oscar] is charming, generous, kind, thoughtful — all the things you’re looking for in a guy.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Robbie Arnell, ARQ and CW’s “The Flash.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Charlotte Le Bon, The Promise: “[Oscar Isaac] is really, really intense but he’s also very funny. He’s kind of two different people. On set he’s this intense, rigid and square person — the way he works is really precise — and outside the set he’s really funny. He’s just a guy you want to have a beer and hang out with.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Nick Kroll, Loving and Sing: “[In Sing] I am Gunter, the Scandinavian dancing pig. It’s very similar to [my role in Loving], Bernie Cohen the 1950’s ACLU lawyer. As you would expect, I sing ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Bad Romance.’ What else would a Scandinavian pig sing besides Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga?”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Erika Linder, Below Her Mouth: “I obviously would have done the movie even if it was a male director because I like taking risks. I never want to do anything unless it scares the shit out of me. But women understand each other on a very emotional level and when we came together — the whole crew, too — it’s everyone’s love story.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Natalie Krill, Below Her Mouth: “It was scary, like there was something deep inside me pushing me towards this, because of the fear.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Maria Bello, The Journey Is the Destination: “[This movie] is more than close to my heart. I actually have a tattoo of Africa on my hip. I’ve been obsessed with Africa my entire life, so it’s just so fortuitous that I would be here at the festival with this incredible film.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Kreesha Turner, King of the Dancehall: “Nick [Cannon] was pretty chill. There were so many non-actors and actresses on this particular set — apart from the brilliant cast, everybody else were local Jamaican talent and artists. Being a Jamaican myself, I understand all too well that you never know what’s going to come out of their mouths. So as a director, Nick kind of had to allow the free flow that would come from such an environment.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Ellar Coltrane, Barry: “[Avi Nash] and I are kind of the two ends of the spectrum for Barry. I’m the super quiet, sweater vest-wearing, poetry-reading, middle-class Caucasian friend.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Lola Flannery, actress: “I like meeting everybody! I don’t have a specific person who I want to meet, I want to meet everybody!”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Gaby Hoffmann, “Transparent”: “”We were [a family] from day one. It’s a real, incredible, weird stroke of genius/magic/love. We all really love each other. We have a very, intense, dynamic, fun emotional experience every season.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Julia Ducournau, director, Raw: “I thought about the three taboos of humanity: murder, incest, cannibalism. Murder, you see it in every movie, so no. Incest, way too dark for me, no way. Cannibalism made sense for me, because all my movies are about the body.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Ana Lily Amirpour, director, The Bad Batch: “It’s a mix of practical makeup and CG. I’m not a fan of just CG. I’m into movies from the 90s and the 80s that look organic, in a way. So we did a mix… What you see looks really fleshy and real.”

Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg. Produced by Arthouse Agency. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.

Natalie Portman, Planetarium, Jackie: “I have not experienced [speaking to spirits] myself, but I believe that anything is possible.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Jeremy Renner, Arrival: “I believe in other life, yes.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.

Amy Adams, Arrival, Nocturnal Animals: “I believe there’s something out there… I don’t know in what form. But I can’t imagine that life is just exclusive to our tiny blue planet, as Carl Sagan calls it.”

Photos and video taken in the NKPR IT House x Scott Brothers’ Producers Ball Portrait Studio. A donation is made to director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice for every celebrity who visits the studio.
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Watch the stars of TIFF do a dramatic reading of Drake’s “One Dance.”