By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
If more work was done to showcase and embrace (the Australian) horror film past it could really help to foster awareness and hunger for local horror films.”
How did emerging Australian filmmaker Caitlin Koller find herself in rural Illinois directing one of the most fun horror comedies of recent years? Produced, written, and co-starring Seana Kofoed, 30 Miles from Nowhere is a gleeful twist on the ‘horny teens run amok’ slasher formula by reimagining the trope with horny adults who should – but don’t – know better, stranded in an isolated cabin as things get increasingly out of control. Despite its upbeat surface, 30 Miles from Nowhere, which stars Carrie Preston (True Blood, The Good Wife), has a serious side, too. It impressively boasted a cast and crew of 50% women – a remarkable statistic when considering just how male-dominated not just filmmaking is in general, but horror filmmaking, especially.
Originally released in early 2019 and hitting Shudder in late August 2020, Koller took the time to speak with me about 30 Miles from Nowhere and the curious journey that led her halfway around the world to make her feature film debut.
So Caitlin, the big question: how did a nice girl like you end up in a genre like this?! I, of course, say this drenched in sarcasm; more seriously, though, what was it that first roped you into this field that is still far too often gendered as a ‘boys club’ – were you drawn by certain subgenres, repelled or disinterested in others, both as a fan and as a filmmaker?
As a child I was very easily scared; my parents love to remind me about the time I begged to watch The Addams Family (1991) and was doing fine for the first 30 seconds until Thing appeared onscreen and I screamed and ran from the room. I wouldn’t return until they promised they’d take the video back to the store.
Therefore, as a teenager I decided to rent all the scariest films I could find at my local video store to try to desensitize myself, and it worked. I was definitely drawn in specifically by slashers but soon developed an affinity for horror-comedies. I think there’s something so magical and masterful about being able to make audiences shriek with laughter, gasp in terror and recoil in disgust in the same film. They’re very visceral emotions.
It’s a shame that horror-comedies usually get overlooked as far as awards and critical praise goes, even within the horror community. They’re like the red-headed stepchildren of horror films. I can attest that audiences enjoy them, but few people grasp how difficult they are to execute. Once you add levity to a plot, it is very hard to get an audience back to a place where they can once again feel terrified. Films like Evil Dead 2, The Loved Ones, Prevenge and Housebound straddle the fine line between horror and comedy with inspiring agility. This kind of mastery is an alluring challenge for a writer-director.
I think the main appeal of horror films overall, though, has always been for me the sheer number of female protagonists, whose goal/main objective in the film isn’t to find their soulmate. I find that the horror genre enables its protagonists – they’re often multi-faceted characters working through trauma and/or overcoming obstacles, who come out the other side stronger and more in tune with themselves. It was exciting growing up to see well known characters such as Ellen Ripley, Clarice Starling, and Sydney Prescott facing down and leading the charge against aliens, cannibals, and murderers. It made me want to work on and add to the pantheon of action heroes, crime fighters and final girls.
I understand you studied film at Swinburne University in Melbourne, yeah? How do your studies fit in with your short film Maid of Horror, which really set you on this crazy path?
I started Film and Television at Swinburne University wanting to direct music videos, but I fell in love with writing and directing fiction. My two favourite genres of film are horror films and teen films, so I was determined to make one of each. In third year, I co-wrote and co-directed a teen focused black-comedy short called Blood Orange with Lachlan Smith. It made sense to do a fourth year, so I enrolled in Honours with the aim of making a horror film. I had written a short story version of Maid of Horror for my third-year creative writing class and then adapted it into a script. Horror wasn’t looked upon kindly at that time; it was assumed you’d make a “serious” drama film, and I was actively encouraged by some to choose another idea and especially another genre, but I stuck to my guns. I knew what I wanted to make and felt vindicated after so many film festivals accepted Maid of Horror – I was assured that audiences would embrace the kind of content I want to create.
Maid of Horror was a festival favourite here in Australia: were you expecting that? What was it about that film do you think that appealed to audiences?
I was glad to see it play at Stranger With My Face International Film Festival and Monster Fest, but I wouldn’t say it was highly valued in Australia. It was really in the US where the film found its audience. At over 17 minutes in length, I was actually surprised with how many festivals accepted it – it is a long short! In terms of appeal for audiences, I think there were three main reasons. Firstly, audiences always seem to enjoy horror-comedies.
I love being in an audience when Maid of Horror or Blood Sisters play as it’s always such a delight to get to enjoy the film through their audible chuckles, screams, and groans. Secondly, it’s set at a wedding, and I’m sure we’ve all been guests at a wedding where the annoying behaviour of certain attendees has initiated fantasies of escape or violence. Thirdly, it stars a rage-driven female protagonist, which is unusual in horror films let alone horror-comedies.
Stranger With My Face has been such a vital incubator for women’s genre filmmaking in Australia; I often talk to people who while are very supportive of women in the genre, and they tend to think of the ‘women in horror movement’ as being more about content (which it to some degree is) rather than what I see as so essential to it; it formalizes these kinds of networking communities, which often at times verge into support group areas. What are your thoughts on women-specific genre festivals, and how do you respond from your own experience as a practitioner to suggestions it risks ghettoizing women’s filmmaking – and women’s films?
I have found women-specific genre festivals to be very welcoming and supportive spaces. They have helped me to meet and make connections with many unique and varied filmmakers, writers, fans, and academics. Instead of ghettoizing films, festivals like Stranger With My Face, Berlin Final Girls Film Festival, Ax Wound Film Festival and Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival to me have helped to shine a spotlight on unique storytelling.
In presenting women-centric experiences, these festivals deepen the breadth and depth of what genre films can offer. Female-made genre films don’t always fit into the traditional boxes of known sub-genres, so encountering them is always very exciting and inspiring.
I have also been approached multiple times after screenings by audience members who don’t consider themselves horror fans, expressing shock that they really enjoyed the films. It was the idea of the festival that intrigued them enough to go outside their comfort zone and watch something new. These festivals open the genre up to people who have many misconceptions about it and through watching a horror film based on a woman’s perspective, often have their preconceived notions on gender challenged.
What was the journey from Maid of Horror to your second short, the co-directed Blood Sisters?
I spent the year following graduation submitting Maid of Horror to as many film festivals as I could. I was lucky enough to see its World Premiere at ‘Fright Night Horror Film Festival’ in Louisville, Kentucky with Stacie Mason, our lead actor and Emma Rotstein, one of our make-up artists, in attendance. We got a great response and from there it played at another 23 film festivals.
After that, I took a couple of years to decide if filmmaking was really what I wanted to pursue, as it seemed like such an insurmountable mountain to have to climb as a young, female writer-director, especially in the horror genre. I spent a year teaching English in Japan and over that time my appetite to direct another film grew. In my last month I realised that I was determined to do everything I could to make my dream a reality. Back in Australia, Lachlan and I decided to make my friend Hannah White’s script Blood Sisters. The script had won third place at the ‘Stranger with My Face’ 48-hour script challenge a couple of years before.
After reading it, I approached Hannah and asked if I could direct as it was exactly my kind of humour. I loved the way that it mixed body horror with snappy dialogue and focused on the friendship of two young women. Hannah, Lachlan and I all pooled funds to make it happen and cast our friend and long-time collaborator Emma Gladwell, who had starred in my previous two films.
How did Hollywood come knocking for 30 Miles from Nowhere?
For its world premiere, Blood Sisters was accepted to play at the 2017 ‘Stranger with My Face International Film Festival’ in Hobart, where I was also to attend the ‘Attic Lab’ masterclasses. It was there that I met American filmmaker Elizabeth Schuch, whose beautiful and inspiring directorial debut The Book of Birdie, was also playing. Two months later Elizabeth was approached by Film Camp Productions, a.k.a. Writer/Producer/Actor Seana Kofoed and producer Kelly Demaret, to direct 30 Miles From Nowhere. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was already attached to another project but on reading the script realised that the quick dialogue and character interplay reminded her of Blood Sisters, so she messaged me to ask if it was ok to recommend me for the job instead. Four months after Stranger With My Face, I was in the US about to direct my first feature film.
Obvious question: what was it like to turn up to the first day of shooting for 30 Miles from Nowhere – yourself a very long way from home?
I had arrived one week before shooting started, to get acclimatised and also to do some pre-production prep work. I got to meet most of the heads of departments on a location recce, and I met most of the actors at a quick dress rehearsal a few days before the shoot. I was literally thrown in the deep end – I had caught a bad cold on the plane over, so for the first few days I was surviving on cold medicine, fresh juice, vitamin supplements, and adrenaline.
It was definitely intimidating to direct all these professional American television actors, especially Rob Benedict as we met about 10 minutes before the shoot started, so there was no time to build up a rapport. However, everyone was so lovely, supportive, and enthusiastic that it was honestly such a joy to be on set. There was a moment about halfway through the shoot where I was standing in the middle of the woods of Illinois with sides in my hand, and I looked around at the people and the location and had an immense sense of calm wash over me and I thought, I’m meant to be here. It was a really special moment.
I think the first day was also intimidating because, being a first-time director, I had to gain the trust of the cast and crew and first impressions were definitely that I was a shy but friendly and calmly spoken Aussie, not the typical stereotype of a director. There’s also something about being young and female: people don’t assume you’re in charge. I have been mistaken for a P.A. on the set of my own film before. However, I think one of the best compliments I received on set was when I was at lunch and a member of my crew remarked that I was the most approachable director they had ever worked with.
After the first two days of location shooting in metropolitan Chicago, the cast and crew were driven to the woods of Fox Lake, Illinois and we stayed on location the rest of the shoot. It was a hectic 14-day shoot over 16 days, but even with all the challenges – late night shoots, multiple stunts, unruly blood squibs, first time child actors, animal actors, dodging acorn tornadoes, mosquitoes that could bite through multiple layers of clothing – it was such a blast, just like being on camp with a bunch of friends. There’s a reason that Seana and Kelly’s production company is called Film Camp Productions.
I was especially conscious of my responsibilities in working with Emmy award winning Carrie Preston, who is a phenomenal actor. On set one day after the first take of a scene, she came over to see if I had any notes. I honestly couldn’t think of anything, so I said, “Uh, it was perfect.” She replied, “You can always improve, darlin’.” I think that is a perfect maxim summarizing the art of filmmaking.
As writer and actor, 30 Miles from Nowhere feels very much like a collaboration with Seana Kofoed – you also co-directed Blood Sisters with Lachlan Smith, I believe. How do you approach directing in terms of the actual practice of collaborating with other people?
Collaborating with other people is honestly one of the main reasons I love filmmaking; it isn’t a solo venture, it really is a team effort. It is critical to choose people to work with who not only believe in what you do, but also bring an attitude of enthusiasm and reciprocal respect. Seana and Kelly had a ‘no asshole’ policy when hiring people to work on 30 Miles From Nowhere, and I believe it held us in good stead.
For Blood Sisters, Lachlan and I had a clear understanding of what our vision was for the film, as we had quite a few months in pre-production to be able to flesh out what we wanted to accomplish. Going in, we naturally split off so that I was mainly working with the actors Emma Gladwell and Hannah Vanderheide, and he was mainly working with Jonathan Haynes, our cinematographer. It was only a two-day shoot for Blood Sisters, so being able to work concurrently with actors and camera as co-directors made for a much more time efficient shoot. We were also lucky that we had a great team who was mostly returning from the Maid of Horror crew, so they knew what they were in for; screams, fake blood, laughs and good catering.
In terms of 30 Miles From Nowhere, Seana was amazing to work with. In the months leading up to the shoot, she was open to making changes to the script, and we ended up cutting quite a few pages to ensure we could film it all in the tight turnaround time. On set, if she was in the scene, she was definitely there as an actor and our communication really supported our vision for Elaine’s character.
As a writer, there were only a few times when she was particular about a line of dialogue or character’s reaction, so I was happy to acquiesce to those requests. In terms of being a producer, she and Kelly were completely trusting in my vision and when the first lot of rushes returned, they told me they were able to put any doubts they’d had to rest, which was really comforting. They were so supportive and enthusiastic during the entire shoot, and I couldn’t have asked for better producers to work with. It was their first time producing a feature and we would have debrief sessions after work, giving feedback and lifting each other up, and I really believe they helped to develop a solid team.
I think if you ask any genre filmmaker in Australia about what the opportunities for more traditional funding routes in this country are, 9 out of 10 times you’ll get laughed at straight to your face. So many Australian horror films are self-funded or kickstarted; films like your fellow Australian woman horror filmmaker Natalie Erica James’s Relic feel like the exception to the rule in terms of attracting support from major national funding bodies. As a filmmaker who made their feature debut in a wholly US context, I’m fascinated to hear your thoughts not just on this, but also on how it influences ideas of a ‘national’ Australian horror cinema as a discrete phenomenon? Is that even possible anymore?
We are fortunate to have national funding bodies; however, there is clearly a conservative selection bias. This means firstly that horror films struggle to get funding, and those that do, tend to be a particular kind of ‘acceptable’ horror film featuring an arthouse or drama focus. It probably stems from needing external validation: we still have this cultural cringe around Australian films, so we strive to be seen internationally as a ‘serious’ filmmaking country.
It seems illogical to me that we don’t consistently fund horror films when they usually guarantee a return on investment. A nationally funded Blumhouse model could be really successful here as we have so much underutilised, hungry talent. However, instead of fostering our own potentially successful industry, we practically encourage our creatives to leave to find the opportunities elsewhere that they can’t find locally. I think this needs to be discussed far more: we could be having a boom period of Australian genre filmmaking, but it seems that we prefer to export our talent.
The era of Ozploitation filmmaking was really a wonderful time for Australian horror, and unsurprisingly, it has been done a real disservice in the history of our cultural consciousness. Overseas many of those films are adored and admired. Here, most of those films are all but forgotten, and they aren’t really lauded or acknowledged as influential by the powers that be. If more work was done to showcase and embrace our horror film past it could really help to foster awareness and hunger for local horror films.
If you ask critics, academics, filmmakers and fans, we all know the importance of horror filmmaking in the way it can reflect fears of the zeitgeist, and allows us to explore taboo subjects and important, timely themes but it’s not us that needs convincing, it’s the funding gatekeepers who do.
And the big question: where to from here?
Before the pandemic struck, I was in pre-production for my next short film Sacred Skin, co-written with Phillip Johnston, which is a more serious foray into body horror and the occult, but unfortunately that has had to be put on hold. There is also going to be a 30 Miles From Nowhere online watch party with live commentary from film critic and broadcaster Sally Christie and myself in early September. I’m also co-writing a burlesque horror-comedy with Elizabeth Schuch, which I’m really excited about. Currently, I’m finishing my first feature film script, Slammer Savages – a post-apocalyptic, women in prison cannibal film.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States. Her most recent book is 1000 Women in Horror: 1895-2018 (BearManor Media, 2020).