If you are a horror fan, the name Jovanka Vuckovic should ring a bell. Former editor of the horror publication Rue Morgue Magazine, Jovanka has also directed three short films as well as executive produced while directing her own segment in the all-female horror anthology, XX. When she is not writing or directing or taking over the horror world, Jovanka also is the owner and curator of The Tell Tale Heart tattoo shop in Ontario, Canada. To say she is one of the hardest working directors out there would be an understatement considering she just debuted her first feature film, RIOT GIRLS, at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
In RIOT GIRLS, Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) and her girlfriend Nat (Madison Iseman) find themselves, along with a group of friends and family, fighting for their lives against a rival gang in a mid-90s, a post-apocalyptic world after the adult population is decimated by a deadly plague. Though impossible to classify as one genre, Jovanka’s horror roots shine through in the ultra-violent moments that are nothing short of impactful.
Ahead of the North American Premiere of her film, which took place on July 28th, I had the chance to chat with Jovanka. During the interview, we discussed everything from the unique comic book style visuals, the use of practical effects, and the most important of all – female badassery.
Hi Jovanka, thank you so much for speaking with me. To start things off, can you talk a little bit about RIOT GIRLS and what interested you in Katherine Collins script?
Jovanka Vuckovic: Because of my horror pedigree, I get sent a lot of genre scripts and most of them are terrible, portray women negatively, or both. So it was with great surprise that RIOT GIRLS came my way because a) it’s not a horror film and b) I planned on only directing my own material and c) I said I didn’t want to make movies about teens. I write stories about adult women with adult women problems. But here was this story with so much potential about two badass gay girls from the wrong side of the tracks who actually get what they want for one. I could relate to them because I was them growing up. I would not have taken the job if it were a Romeo and Juliet movie. I did it because it’s a Juliet and Juliet movie. Spoiler: The girl gets the girl! I’m sure it will surprise everyone that I made a queer teen film as much as it did me. Narratively, I had to step out of my comfort zone (horror) and do something different but once I found my way into the story through Nat and Scratch, who are a pair of feminist punk and a metalheads, I realized it actually kind of fit my brand and career mandate: which is to redefine women in genre films.
One of my favorite aspects of the movie was the comic book style framing in the film. What was the inspiration behind that?
Jovanka Vuckovic: I’m a huge comic book fan. When I first read RIOT GIRLS it immediately made me think of indie comics from the ’90s like Tank Girl. Even though she was written by men, Tank Girl‘s a queero. As it turned out, Katherine was a big fan of that comic and Rachel Talalay’s film, it had a huge impact on her as a teen. So I thought, let’s lean into that, and even set it in the ’90s. A friend recently told me it plays a bit like Tank Girl meets Hobo With a Shotgun by way of Degrassi… which is a crazy description that actually makes a lot of sense given that we shot on the Degrassi set and Munro was our big bad. I added the comic book framing device and transitions, which are shamelessly inspired by Ang Lee’s Hulk. I just tried to have as much fun as possible with it. People gasped when I mentioned using Comic Sans font because it’s the butt end of so many design jokes but I was like, “Fuck that. I’m not afraid of Comic Sans!”
I felt like a lot of the characters were easily relatable and I love the female empowerment that stems from Scratch and Nat. Can you talk a little bit about the casting process and how you found your leads?
Jovanka Vuckovic: Paloma auditioned early on and I didn’t want to see anyone else for Scratch. She had an androgynous presence that she deliberately put forward that absolutely sold me because I had always read Scratch as genderqueer. As it turned out she did too. Madison’s audition brought me to tears, she was so raw and truthful. And fo her, it was a departure from the types of toles she is typically offered: the cheerleader, the mean girl, the picture of conformity. She too wanted to do something different. Then, once these girls showed up and Madison let us hack up and dye her beautiful blonde hair, and Paloma shaved her damn head into a mohawk – it was clear they were the right actors for the roles. They gave so much of themselves to this small movie. I love Nat and Scratch. My only wish is that we could see more of them in the film. If it were up to me, I would have had them in every scene.
When it came to the use of practical effects, was that something that was always on the table? What were some of the challenges you faced using practical?
Jovanka Vuckovic: Absolutely. Growing up my heroes were people like Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, etc. So there was no question I wanted all the violence to be as practical as possible. Of course, some gags work, some don’t and when you’re a low budget indie that can afford only one set up, you hope for the best on the day and spruce it up with visual effects enhancements, which is what we did. Because I am who I am, I pushed for as much violence as I could get away with. I pitched a spectacular blood ballet of extreme slow-mo, skull-crushing, eyeball-gouging violence set to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” that would have made FANGORIA proud but I’ll have to save it for the next movie.
Lastly, I love that this film salutes female badassery and deals with classism head-on. What are you hoping that viewers will take away from this film after they see it?
Jovanka Vuckovic: In a world filled with too much fear and aversive judgement towards people who don’t fit into the neat boxes society has created for them, letting people be whoever the fuck they want to be is one of the most punk rock things a person can do. Life is short, man. Try not to be an asshole.
For more on RIOT GIRLS, check out my review here.