The most terrifying part of Tara Subkoff’s film #Horror — with which the actress makes her directorial debut — is the reality of its subject matter: the disgusting truth of cyber bullying and how a virtual insult can quickly turn brutal and violent in real life. Chloë Sevigny plays narcissist art-snob Alex Cox, who devotes little time to her 12-year-old daughter Sofia (Bridget McGarry) and is in the midst of a sour relationship with her husband (Balthazar Getty).
Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, and Lydia Hearst also make brief appearances in the film, which centers on Sofia’s group of equally rich and obscenely privileged friends (aside from outcast Sam, played by Sadie Seelert, who is middle-class and scorned for it). The girls find themselves alone in the Cox family Connecticut mansion, which is decked out in contemporary artwork from Urs Fischer (who is also the film’s executive producer and husband to Subkoff), Rob Pruitt, Francesco Clemente, Franz West, among others.
The girls prove to be vicious demons, all bullies in their own right, with Cat (Haley Murphy) being the most brutal. The fat-shaming schoolyard diatribe quickly escalates to something much more horrific.
I spoke with Subkoff and Sevigny about the making of #Horror and the disturbing side of social media.
When you were writing the film, what did you want to comment on initially? Where did the idea spark for you?
Tara Subkoff: Well, I think for me I really don’t think like that. It’s more about what inspires me. Oftentimes what makes me angry or upset is how I get inspired. Things are frustrating in the world. There should be a better way, and so I think I come more from that. It’s more, for me as an artist or a writer, I really want people to take away what they will from something. And it could be a multitude of different things. I don’t want to tell the moral of the story. That’s just not where I come from as a creative person. The better answer, or question if I ask you, what did you take away from it? What did you feel?
To me it was an interesting remark on social media and phone culture, and a very different perspective on how they affect our lives. How we interact on social media is something I think a lot about and I’ve been wanting to see the negative effects of it played out more in film. Especially with pre-teens. What made you focus on this group of 12-year-old girls?
Subkoff: It was really important to me, that age, because I feel like it’s between being a kid and being a woman. It’s also specifically the time where cyber-bullying affects girls the most and I wanted to be really honest and have it be really culturally relevant to depicting that problem as honestly as I could. So, a lot of people, especially more Hollywood producers, were like, “You can’t have the girls be that young. You got to have them be 16 on a set.” And you know what? That’s the joy of making an independent movie that’s independently financed without any Hollywood money: I can do exactly what I want to do with the vision that I have, which is a more honest version and a less strategic to please an audience that is tested and researched. All of that kind of stuff was not a part of this picture.
You were going against that popular trend of casting older actors to play young girls.
Subkoff: That’s usually what they do in Hollywood, right? But I understand after shooting it the challenges of working with minors and I understand why they say the “Three Nos” are no kids, no water, no animals.
What were some other challenges you came across in making the film?
Subkoff: I think shooting in extreme temperatures like cold, in the snow, that I would say is the biggest one. I also think working at that faster pace. In the future I wouldn’t shoot in that short of a schedule. I would make sure that I had a longer time to shoot. Those were the two biggest.
Chloë Sevigny: And Tara really, she was so patient with the girls. They were all novices and none of them had done any professional acting before. And she really molded those performances and pulled it out of these young girls who had never done it before, never really had been on a set, and had to learn the ropes under these extreme conditions. And she should be really applauded for that.
That’s crazy to know it was their first movie. They were so honest and real.
Subkoff: Thank you. I put a lot of time in with them and workshopped with them before. Taught them a lot of old-school acting exercises. And also I think they improved incredibly their first few days working with Chloë. She’s such a natural talent and has so much discipline and is such a hard worker that they stopped goofing around and really had to rise up to be professional actresses. And seeing someone who is so professional, who shows up on time, knows their lines, is ready to work, is ready to go to anywhere that you tell her you need to go to right away, and willing to take a lot of risks. I think they saw that and it was incredible how much that improved them immediately.
I’m curious about the adults in this world. Chloë, what did you make of your character? And Tara, did you write the role with Chloë in mind?
Subkoff: I worked with Chloë for a short film we did for MOCAtv and it was such a delight and so much fun and I knew I really wanted to work with her in a bigger capacity and for a feature. So it was a real dream come true to work with her again on my first feature film. Thank you so much Chloë, it means a lot.
Sevigny: Oh, sure.
Subkoff: For the rest of the adults, I would say that I cast very specifically and I even wrote roles for very specific people in mind. That’s the joy of having been an actor in the past and knowing people pretty well for a long time and knowing where they would really shine or cast them against type. Like someone like Natasha [Lyonne]. And even Chloë, I don’t think that’s the type of role she’s been given before. I just think how I feel about adults, I am an adult, unfortunately, in many ways, but sometimes I act more like a kid. I think all creative people do. But I think we tend to take things seriously and we’re very addicted to connectivity and phones and email. And then it’s interesting, the hypocrisy of that. I have a six-year-old stepdaughter so the whole idea of how much she sees adults on the phone and then she wants the phone all the time but then, no, she’s not allowed. The idea of being a role model and not being on the phone all the time and being cautious about that and figuring out boundaries around that, even for oneself, I think it’s super interesting and challenging. I mean, I set the whole film up with all the adults have their phones and are very attached to their phones before you go to the 12-year-old girls being left alone.
Sevigny: I think my character is very self-absorbed, but also, she’s going through her own… She has her own storyline. She’s, of course, connected to her daughter and disconnected from her. She’s selfish and very flawed. Her life is unravelling and she’s trying to hold it together and she’s struggling with her own addictions and demons. Unfortunately she’s maybe not present enough in her child’s life. Or, I feel like Tara is maybe trying to show some balance and maybe adults will see the film and be able to take something away from that as like a mirror.
The art in the film is a character in itself, especially that beating egg yolk. I’m curious about the collaboration with Urs Fischer and the overall look of the film.
Subkoff: Well, he is my husband, so I think that he’s definitely supported this film as an executive producer, which was great. And he also contributed a lot of artwork and lent work, as well as many other friends who also lent work to the film. I’m super grateful for their support. Art for me is a hugely important part of our life. I feel like it’s where I draw a lot of inspiration from and I have a lot of friends who are artists and have for a long time. It’s really exciting to see where they are in their careers and how they’ve evolved. I feel like I wanted to tell a story that was about the one percent of the one percent. It’s very hard in this day and age, when we’re so focused on wanting more. And “more, better, faster, more” is almost the mantra. We all feel that we need to earn more, have more, be better, all this stuff.
I wanted to have it depicted on what everyone wants, the idea of having it all, and what that means and what that maybe what that really looks like. And for people who are in the one percent of the one percent, usually they do collect art or often they do, so it was important to be honest about that level of a collection. Urs also helped me curate that in terms of finding pieces that really would be specific to the character I wrote who was very disconnected from his family and self involved and interested in his own thing. Interested in art that would be a little odd to have in a family house, or not typical. That was really fun to find those pieces and figure out how they would go together and where they would go.
I production designed the film with my brother, Daniel Subkoff, and it was also a collaboration. We also used all furniture from my father, George Subkoff. There was a real eclectic feeling to that house that we basically put together because it was an empty house when we rented it. None of the art or furniture or anything was in the house and that is no easy feat on this low budget, in this small film, with this fast a shooting schedule. It was a lot of work and thank you for noticing. For me it was really important to have it be an honest depiction of that world and also have it be very beautiful in a way that was unnerving and scary.