Jovanka Vuckovic hates when it happens. But when you’re a film director and a woman, it’s inevitable: People are going to think you’re on set in a different capacity.
“I’ve been on film sets where the stunt man comes up and says, ‘Oh, are you hair and makeup?’ Uh, no. ‘Are you wardrobe?’ No,” Vuckovic says. “‘Oh, then what are you doing here?’ I’m the director. ‘You don’t look like a director.'”
“Well, what’s a director supposed to look like?”
A former horror magazine editor from Toronto, Vuckovic has been a fan of the genre for many years. Working in publishing and later in the male-dominated filmmaking world, it became clear to her how underrepresented women were behind the camera and, thus, how wildly misrepresented they were in front of the camera — particularly when it comes to horror.
“I kept asking people, ‘Please, can you just write women characters as actual human beings?'” she explains. “I got tired of asking, so I just decided I’m going to do it myself.”
Vuckovic’s short film “The Box” is part of a horror anthology, “XX,” that’s garnering a lot of buzz at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
For many moviegoers, it’s both a scary film and an important endeavor.
The trailer for “XX” is pretty damn terrifying. But even cooler, the anthology — which features four short films, including Vuckovic’s — is completely women-led, with each film directed by and starring women.
Vuckovic says women made up roughly 80% of the crew for her short. On most sets, that ratio is basically flipped.
Along with “The Box,” “XX” features Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall,” Karyn Kusama’s “Only Living Son,” and Annie Clark’s “Birthday Party.”
If the trailer (embedded below) is any indication, each short appears as scary as the next. There’s no shortage of creepy children, torn-off fingernails, and camping trips gone awry between the four dark tales.
“Birthday Party” marks the directorial debut for Clark, who’s better known to most as musical artist St. Vincent. Her involvement helped “XX” premiere at Sundance on Jan. 22, 2017, to a sold-out crowd.
The thrill-seeking audience at Sundance loved the barrier-pushing concept of the film anthology just as much as it loved the blood, guts, and screams — probably in part because of how different “XX” truly is.
Historically, filmmakers in horror have been overwhelmingly male. And that means women on-screen are often portrayed in trope-y, unrealistic roles.
While the male gaze and gender stereotyping run rampant throughout most genres of film, horror may arguably be the worst offender. From the damsel in distress and evil seductress to the sexually liberated woman who must be killed and the vengeful lover, a handful of tropes have largely carved out the types of dehumanizing roles available to women in horror.
“The only thing you have to do to make a movie feminist is depict women as actual human beings,” Vuckovic says of changing the status quo. But by that standard, many scary flicks fall embarrassingly short.
It should be noted that the genre isn’t exactly known for its racial inclusiveness, either, as many films continue to fail at diverse casting: “We primarily see white-washed versions of the world in a lot of movies,” Vuckovic says. “Young people need to grow up seeing versions of themselves on screen.”
Sadly, there hasn’t been as much progress for women in horror (or in Hollywood, more generally) as you might expect.
In fact, as Vuckovic points out, there were actually more women working as writers, producers, and directors during the silent era of film a century ago than in Hollywood today.
Women make up about half of film school graduates at top schools like the University of Southern California and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, yet they make up just a tiny fraction of actual working directors, MTV News reported. Lack of opportunity outside the academic world plays a big role in that lopsided reality, according to Vuckovic.
Women are “not allowed to fail the same way men are allowed to fail,” she says, echoing the same injustice Reese Witherspoon spoke out about in March 2016: Men’s movies can flop at the box office and they’ll still get a second (or third or fourth) chance at financial redemption. For women, it doesn’t work like that.
The good news: Signs are pointing to progress for women in the horror genre. But we all have a part in making that happen.
According to Vuckovic, recent films like “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and the critically acclaimed “The Babadook” — a film that explores the difficulties of single motherhood through a horror lens — have helped move the genre forward for women behind (and in front of) the camera.
“I don’t think a lot of the filmmakers making horror now know its worth, or realize the potential of the genre,” “The Babadook” director Jennifer Kent told New York Magazine in 2014. “Just because it’s a horror film doesn’t mean it can’t be deep.”
It’s important we take note of the films that are created by women and make sure to support them at the box office, Vuckovic notes — showing that women-led films can succeed financially is the best way to provide more opportunities for more women down the road.
Through “XX,” Vuckovic hopes young girls learn there is a space for them in the horror genre, despite what anyone else says.
“Go, pick up a camera, make some movies, and don’t take no for an answer,” she advises girls interested in the magic of filmmaking. “You didn’t go to film school? Who cares. Get your friends to help you, and just start — start somewhere.”
“XX” opens in select theaters and on video on-demand Feb. 17. Watch the trailer below: