By Paul Risker.
Katharine Isabelle’s discovery of films could not have been more different than my own. My place has always been on the spectatorial side of the silver screen, whilst for the actor her encounter with film from a young age was interactive and set in motion experiences she could never have anticipated. “My parents were ‘below the line’ filmies” she explains. “I kind of grew up hanging around on set. It just sort of seemed like what you did, and so I went into the family business – if your parents grow potatoes then you grow potatoes. I hung out on set a lot and then I did one film, I think it was a big budget wedding movie [Cousins, 1989], and it was all so beautiful and shot in mansions. There were lots of dresses, candy and cake everywhere and I probably thought that was pretty okay. But I was six and I didn’t exactly foresee working outside, the long nights and being dragged through the forest in the pissing rain, and the freezing snow [Laughs].”
In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker about home invasion horror Torment (2013), Isabelle spoke about the filmmaking experience as personal enjoyment versus artistic motivation, the pitfalls of horror for actresses, the need to create multidimensional characters that can speak to an audience and connect with their human experience, and how performance has allowed her to expand her own human experiences.
The moment of realisation that films are created is an important moment in our relationship with cinema. From a young age you were seeing the behind the scenes process. How much do you think that has impacted your career and how important do you think it was to experience the behind the scenes at such a young age?
Well I think that is my whole life. I grew up on set; teamsters and grips raised me. I spent time working on and just being on set because I like it there. It’s my natural habitat and it’s the atmosphere I am most comfortable in. I just like to work and it’s not even necessarily what the end product is, because that’s out of my hands; that’s not my department. I just like getting up at four in the morning to go and hang out on set and work with the crew. As for how much effort goes into making a finished project that is a whole other ballgame. But I just wanted to be there; it’s where my family was.
When you first read the script for Torment what was it that appealed to you about both the character and the story?
I think people would love a deeper explanation for stuff, but I thought it would be a fun film to make with a fun group of people, and I knew Robin [Dunne] from before. Horror movies are more fun to shoot than dramas about feelings where you sort of talk. Those absolutely have their value especially as an actor, but as far as just a good time, shooting a horror movie is just good fun.
But yeah it’s intense – small, low budget, not a lot of time and it was kind of an adventure. You are sort of thrown altogether into this ridiculous situation to see what you can make out of it, and it was kind of a fun challenge. I hadn’t done a home invasion movie as a mom before and so I thought I’d give it a go. It was also freezing cold and that always helps – going somewhere freezing cold and killing everybody.
A creative writing tutor once mentioned to me that telling a story is not about creating a game changer, rather on occasions it is about telling a familiar story well. Directors and actors are criticised for making films deemed to be inferior, but as an audience do we forget that actors and filmmakers should be allowed to have fun and to make a film only because they want to and not for an exclusively artistic motivation?
Well sure and art is subjective. If we are making art here then yeah, some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it. But also the people sitting at their computer criticising this and that, why don’t they go and make a film. Do they have any idea how much work it takes to make a movie regardless of whether it is amazing, a game changing piece of art, entertaining or a piece of shit? It is really difficult, and I’ve worked constantly in my career on over a hundred different things, and some of them are beautiful pieces of art; some of them are fun to watch and some of them are total pieces of shit. But all of them were a fun experience.
The end product is obviously a huge factor in what you do, and you are hoping that it is going to be good, but sometimes you just want to make something that is fun and entertaining to watch, and people should be: oh, that was entertaining to watch and not sit there and rip it to shreds, because it was difficult to make. I think if everything you put out there has to be a game changing piece of work it’s just going to eventually become a bunch of self-evolved, narcissistic, self-machohistory shit [laughs]. Everything has to be art and perfect – everything has to be entertaining and have its own value and I like that. I like doing things for their entertainment value and adventure. If occasionally something I am involved with makes it a step further than that, then that’s fine.
They say horror and comedy are the two most challenging genres because they require you to invoke a reaction from the audience. As an actress do you find genres pose different challenges that stretch you in different ways or does coming to any new character represent a challenge?
Well I think it is easy to get pigeonholed into horror, especially the girl who is running away being the victim. I’ve been lucky in horror that I’ve come across interesting characters who to me were the kind of thing I would have liked to have seen growing up, and even now reflect women who are very deep, layered and interesting, and who are not sort of one dimensional – I’m the victim or I’m like the sexy, sassy girl. I think with characters like Ginger from Ginger Snaps (2000), Mary from American Mary (2012) and Margot from Hannibal (2013-), those are three women in a genre who are more interesting and multi-dimensional than I generally see in horror movies. I never intended to do a lot of horror and it is still not the majority of my work. But there are characters that pop out every once in a while in horror where you say that is really interesting. There might not be an avenue in a romantic comedy for that type of character to exist, and so they exist in the darker genre. They are super valuable and I have fortunately been given great characters within the genre, and I have not been pigeon holed into a screaming sexy girl with bouncy tits.
As much as we root for Ginger, Mary and Margot and experience a sense of anxiety through their travails, as you point out they are characters that function on a more human level, and if they are aspirational figures then that is the source of this quality.
It is that they are very human and that’s what makes them interesting. They are more human than especially the one dimensional female characters that we are generally given in pop culture, and I think why they are interesting is that they are more human to us in what our experience of being human is. I know my human experience is totally bizarre. Sometimes I am light, happy and just effervescent with joy, and sometimes I am miserable and dark. To see those kinds of well-rounded characters on film speaks more to us, because we are not just one dimensional. We have vast differences in our moods, feelings and experiences. So when you see someone reflected back to you who is more multidimensional, it speaks to you because you are more multidimensional than what is often shown.
Alexandre Aja has remarked that “When you’re building characters, you must be scared for them and you must forget that you’re watching a movie.” It’s one of those things that initially seems routine, but as a writer and director how challenging is it to create that connection with the audience; especially as you can never predict the response.
You can’t ever know. When I first read the scripts for Ginger Snaps and American Mary I thought they were amazing; they really spoke to me. But when we were making them you were surrounded by some fairly bizarre stuff and I did think, and I’m sure other people were thinking what the fuck are we doing? Is anyone going to get this – people are going to love this or hate this. Fortunately most people ended up loving those things, but you don’t ever know what someone’s reaction to a character, a line or a whole movie is going to be, and within that audience there are going to be people who love it and hate it. The best thing you can do is throw yourself into it and hope people forget they are watching a movie for a second, and at the end of it they go okay that was entertaining or that was amazing and it changed my life or hopefully not that it was shit and I hate you [Laughs].
In horror and genre cinema we frequently place the protagonists in dreadful situations, and then as an audience we engage with it as entertainment. What do you think it says about us on both sides of the camera, from the writers and directors to the genre audience?
That we want to see somebody put in a horrible situation and be entertained as they fight their way out. It is all fear driven right? It is human beings who have driven us to basically do everything, and I think in today’s society, in today’s day and age where we live on this planet, we are fairly lucky to not be physically attacked by psycho murderers every single day. There are obviously places on the planet where that happens. But I think it is valuable for humans to be able to pay a couple of bucks to sit in a safe and warm place and watch someone else go through the very basic human fear experience; root for them and experience that with them from the safety of our chair.
Whereas for hundreds of thousands of years humans have been out there day to day battling death and saving their families, when that day to day survival fight to the death has been somewhat removed from someone’s living on the planet, even if you take that basic instinct and drive experience away from us then I think we are still going to feel it. We are going to want to watch other people go through it especially if we can do it while safe and warm, because it’s about exploring our own very dark sides of ourselves, humanity and our past. But it’s doing it while we are nice and safe and warm.
The home is where we experience intimate and important experiences in our life. In a sense our homes reveal our true identity both in how we act in the space but also how we fill the space with our belongings. Is the reason the home invasion movie such a compelling one because it represents an invasion of our conscious and unconscious selves as much as the physical space?
It’s an absolute violation. I’ve never been home invaded; the closest is people have broken into my car and rummaged around and fucked shit up, but just the amount of violation I felt when people broke into my car. It wasn’t like, “Oh this pisses me off, now I’ve got to get my window fixed.” I felt hurt and violated.
When you bring a guest or friend over to your house it is kind of look at all the things you didn’t know about me just from me talking – this is my inner world. You are looking at the inside piece of somewhere when you go into a home, and if you are home invaded by someone else it is an absolute rape and violation of your life, especially when you have family and children. One of the most basic fears you can have is of someone breaking into your house and fucking with your family. It’s terrifying to imagine, and maybe I do all of these movies just so on the off chance something bad ever happens, then I am totally able to fucking kill people. Who knows, maybe I am just doing research into if I have to kill a home intruder one day.
As actors you have the opportunity to put on all these different masks, to create a multitude of onscreen identities – you can explore your own personalities with that safety net, and it is such an intimate process.
It’s insane. Besides the fact that I get to travel, meet people and have these adventures, I am allowed to experience the entire range of human emotion and human experience without actually having to traumatise myself to those depths. If we are all put on the planet to experience being a human, then there is only so much human experience you can cram into your actual human life. So when my job is experiencing other human experiences that are not necessarily going to be part of my personal human life, it’s like I get to have double or triple the human experience. Even though those things haven’t really happened to me I have experienced a lot more than I would have just being myself in my own human experience.
I have experienced it all through many different eyes and a little bit of every one of those experiences have definitely filtered into my soul and changed who I am in the way I observe and react to life.
Looking back on the experience what have you taken away from Torment both personally and professionally?
Well I think the overwhelming panic when something like that happens is do you just fucking freeze up and wait for the worst of it to be over? Do you just hope you die quickly or do you fucking fight back? Do you get off your ass; overcome your fear and fight? With a movie like Torment, sure I’ll go fucking hand to hand combat and kill pig lady in the middle of a swamp. I can do that [Laughs]. Whether or not any of this would actually help me in a real situation I’d like to think it would. But you watch a movie like this and it’s so tense and sort of upsetting and yet we had a really fun time [Laughs].
It’s kind of like okay I experienced this really crazy fucked up shit and hopefully that would lend to my ability to be empowered at some point in my life if I should ever have to even take control of a first aid situation. I’m pretty good – I’ll kick in and take control, but at the same time we had fun [Laughs].
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.