Nightmarish Conjurings recently had the pleasure of speaking with Elza Kephart, director and co-writer of the new Shudder exclusive SLAXX. The film is an anti-consumerism satire that features bloodthirsty jeans with a passion for murder and dance sequences. Ahead of the release of the film, writer Jessica and Kephart discussed the value of practical effects, the support of the horror community, and why she doesn’t view her high-concept killer denim film as a horror comedy.
First of all, I loved SLAXX. Not only did you direct the film but you also co-wrote it with Patricia Gomez. Can you talk about where the idea for the story came from?
Elza Kephart: Yeah, for sure. It was totally happenstance. We were on a road trip when we were young with another friend called Andrea, who was the producing partner for our first film. And we were just sort of teasing each other with words that we really hated. So Andrea hates the word “slacks” and because we’ve known each other since we were young, we were just teasing her about the words that she hates. So we were going, like, “Slacks, slacks, slacks!” And then Patricia and I’s fertile imagination went like, “Oh my God, it sounds like a horror movie about a pair of killer pants.” And that’s how it started.
Honest to goodness, there was no intention of having a serious social message. And it actually took three drafts to get to where it was. At first, it was just silliness about, like, girls being killed in high school by pants, and then we set it in the store. But there was something still missing. It was still sort of one-note. And then when we realized that it had to have heart and that SLAXX had to be a real character and it needed to have a social message. Not that it had to, but just, it just became [that]. When I did research on fast fashion, I realized it was horrible. And I saw these photos of these young girls staring at me and I was like, “Oh, my God, this is SLAXX. This is who it is.” And that’s when it really, really jelled. We’d like to say that it took 20 years, but each draft took, like, a week to write.
The film pulls off quite a balancing act, between the comedic tone of having a wacky killer jeans concept and the more somber tone surrounding the social message. How did you navigate balancing the humor and the message to get a cohesive tone?
Elza Kephart: It was really hard. When we were shooting it, I realized because the actors were so good that there was a gravitas that was landing, and I was like, “Oh my God, this isn’t as funny and silly as I thought.” And so when we got into the edit, the producers were like, “Where’s the horror-comedy?” And I was like, “Ah, let me find it!” We realized that it was really just more of a satirical gore film than a horror-comedy. And so once we sort of nailed that title or appellation of the film, then the editor and I were really able to not try to make it funny, but to make it ironic. So, the use of music really came into play, because at first, we were trying to have, like, scary music for the deaths, but the deaths weren’t scary, and so it was falling flat…and that really guided us to find the real tone. It was really hard, honestly. The third act always sort of worked, but it was that sort of switch that was difficult…In French, one of the reviewers called it a horrific satire, which I think really represents the film much better than a horror-comedy. So, it was hard.
I think it’s interesting that you draw that distinction. And that makes perfect sense because I think a lot of people are seeing SLAXX as a horror-comedy, perhaps just based on the premise because all they know is: killer jeans. So, do you see the film kind of filling a void in horror in terms of not really being a horror-comedy and being more of that horrific satire?
Elza Kephart: Yeah, I mean, I think a film like Get Out is along the same lines where it’s more comedic and there’s more jump scares than SLAXX but it’s a film with obviously a humongous important social commentary. So, there are films like that, maybe? And, look, I haven’t seen a million…I don’t have the time to keep up with everything that’s coming out. So, there might be more stuff out there. But I don’t know if it’s filling a void, a total void, because I do think there are some horror films that do have social commentary. But I don’t think there’s maybe that many. So I’m glad that we’re able to hit a specific niche that I think is needed, because I think horror is a way to get a message across that’s not like a documentary where people are expecting, “I’m going to watch something about fast fashion. I’m already sold on the fact that it’s evil.” Whereas a lot of people I hope to go into this because it’s insane and then they come out of it really thinking about their consuming habits.
Yeah, that actually leads into my next question, because the ending is quite pointed. There’s — I won’t spoil anything in the interview — but there’s a character who looks the viewer right in the eye. And it’s very much a pointed indictment of consumers as well as corporations. So what would you like viewers to take away from SLAXX? Or what would you like them to think about as they’re kind of feeling that gaze on them?
Elza Kephart: Yeah, well, I am glad that you pointed that out, because I think that’s the most chilling part of the film, actually, when I watch it. I would like, number one, for people to really think about corporations and to understand that corporations are not these innocent, innocuous entities, but that they really control our lives. And that we have the power as consumers to not consume, or to consume wisely. And so it’s really up to us to make the choices. And I understand not everyone can buy super organic things. It’s expensive. But I think just being aware that corporations are extremely manipulative, that most of what they want is just for people to consume, they don’t give a shit about who’s affected — if it’s the Great Barrier Reef or children in Bangladesh or us, you know, especially women who are made to feel that we must look good at all costs and butcher ourselves and spend thousands of dollars to look a certain way, for all victims. And they don’t give a shit. They’re really monsters. And if people could just think, stop just consuming because they think it fills a void. I think a lot of people — and I do it too. So I’m not, you know, I shop secondhand, but still, I’ll be like, “Oh, I just I feel a bit blah, I’ll go to the secondhand store.” And I’ll pick something out. So consuming fills a certain need. And if we can become aware of that and stop just thinking we should buy whatever we want, especially now with Amazon instantaneously, that you should really stop and think, “Okay, do I really need it? Can I get it used? Can I borrow it? Do I need to have it for myself?” And just rethink the way we consume.
Consuming, I think, is a political act nowadays, if we refuse to buy the latest iPhone because we don’t need it. And because these corporations have created planned obsolescence. Like, that’s ridiculous. That’s insulting. That’s criminal. And so I think I’d like consumers to take away the fact that buying is a political choice. And not buying is a very strong political choice. And it’s hard because we’re surrounded by this. But it’s really critical in order to as much as possible decrease overproduction and overconsumption in this climate emergency that we’re all aware is happening.
Yeah, absolutely. And that really comes across in that shot that I’m referring to, it really does kind of shock you and make you realize, you know, thinking back on things you’ve bought or trying to trace the steps from a package arriving at your house to where it started. And just thinking about that pipeline that results in people being mistreated and exploited.
You mentioned the performances. I really loved them. The tone felt really pitch-perfect to me from all the performances. How did you and the actors work on set to achieve the tone you were going for?
Elza Kephart: It really depended on the characters because I knew I wanted Libby and Shruti to really be the anchors, like the dramatic anchors. Especially Libby, to be the entrance for the viewer to the film. But I wanted the other characters to be a bit larger than life and be the sort of almost — not caricatures because they were rooted in real performances, but I did push them to play a bit over the top. Like, I remember the girl who plays Jemma. I pushed her and she’s like, “Are you sure it’s not too much?” I was like, “No, I’ll tell you if it’s too much. Trust me.” And especially Brett Donahue who plays Craig, we really charted his arc really carefully to make sure that we could bring the audience along in his own journey, which I think is also a very interesting one. But it really — I mean, it’s intuitive.
Like my first film, Graveyard Alive, also had this similar dynamic where the main character was like the straight man [even though] she was a woman and all the other characters were a little bit over the top. And the actors weren’t sure, like, “Wait, but she’s playing it serious and we’re playing over the top.” I’m like, “I don’t know, this is just what I need, what needs to happen. Just trust me. I can’t really explain it.” So SLAXX is the same thing where I guess — because people are sort of playing a part, like the store employees are playing a part and Craig is also playing a part — the fact that they’re sort of overacting in a way works in the world that they’re in. They’ve all been told to sell and to lure people into this consuming lifestyle. I think that’s how it sort of came together. But it was not necessarily logical, to be honest.
Yeah, but it does come through. I feel like some of the performances in any other film would have been over the top, but they worked perfectly within the context. And I just love stories like that, where the actors can go a little bit bigger when it suits the story. So I also wanted to ask about the set, because it really creates this feeling of the capitalist dystopia, like a fashionable prison, you know?
Elza Kephart: Yes! Yes. Oh, no one’s said that yet. That’s brilliant. Yeah.
It really did. It felt like the whole thing was, they were in this prison the entire time, even with the lockdown and everything. So I wanted to ask about finding the set for SLAXX and working, because you’ve essentially got a huge box, but you’re creating all these spaces dynamically with the camera.
Elza Kephart: Well, it was actually three locations. The storefront was an old men’s clothing store. Not old, but just empty in a mall in suburban Montreal, and so it was totally empty. The only thing that was there was the cache, the sort of background, that big sort of screen. And so we recreated it from scratch. And then the back store was a mall outside of, again, in suburban Montreal. We had to shoot at night because the mall was operational. And then the warehouse was in the east end of Montreal and, again, it was operational. So we had to shoot at night. And that’s, like, a home decorating fabric warehouse. It was this humongous, super creepy place. And yeah, I really wanted to have this sort of feeling that at first, you had this glossy temple almost like — I base my research on the Apple stores, which I think have a temple-like atmosphere. It’s not, you know, innocuous; they obviously plan it very carefully. And American Apparel and Uniqlo, so those were my three influences for the storefront. And then the back stores were — we were pretty lucky that we found them almost as-is. We just had to do little tweaks here and there.
But I definitely wanted to do, like, a gradation from this sort of glossy storefront [that’s] super colorful to this sort of beige admin back store with the offices to this sort of really creepy, decrepit warehouse almost like a Dante-esque descent into Hell. And I definitely wanted to never go outside. Some people were like, “We should have a shot where we see the exterior.” I was like, “No, don’t you get it? I never want anyone to see outside the store.” And even when people are coming in at the end, I didn’t want there to be a real parking lot. I wanted it to feel like they’re coming in from, like, I don’t know, The Twilight Zone or something because it is so claustrophobic. And these stores, these brands, create this sort of fake world and they trap you in it and then you start going crazy and needing to consume. I mean, it’s all planned to make you buy things, and I guess that’s what I wanted to come across.
Yeah, it absolutely does. And yeah, I definitely got the Apple store [vibe], like the kind of sinister cleanliness of it with the lighting and everything.
Elza Kephart: Yeah, absolutely.
And I love the practical effects of the jeans. Especially, you know, the different qualities of movement, like if it’s snarling or dancing or something. And I liked the credits scene where we see the puppeteers in SLAXX, just a little bit of behind-the-scenes. Can you talk a little bit more about the practical effects and what you were going for and how you accomplished it?
Elza Kephart: Sure. So I really for sure wanted to have practical effects. Like with Patricia, the co-writer and co-producer, we grew up watching ‘80s and ‘90s films and we knew we really wanted it to be practical. I think, even with digital technology advances, I still think that having something real in front of you captured live can’t be beat. So I really wanted to do that, and our producer Anne-Marie Gélinas was really on board. She was like, “Yes, absolutely, the jeans need to be real.” So we worked with a special effects company in Montreal. We used an actual company, a jeans company from Montreal called Naked & Famous that makes ethical jeans using — really using organic cotton and stuff! We actually saw their warehouse. There’s people in Montreal sewing the jeans. And so we had to choose from one of their models. And we chose the creepiest one with the pockets that look like eyes, not the back pockets, the front pockets. I think they look really creepy, like, eye-like.
And so once we had found the jeans we had to do — well, with the special effects company, they tested out all these different movements, you know. They would send me little videos of the moves of the different rigs, and then I would adjust if need be. But we had, they say they had in the end 45 pairs of jeans…depending on the shot, we needed a different rig. So if the jeans were seen from the front, that was one rig; if they were seen from the back, it was another rig; if it was in close-up with the eyes moving, that was another rig; if it needed to bend over, that was a different rig. And so I don’t know how many rigs — and slithering was a different one. So I don’t know, maybe they had five different, six different rigs. And then they had to have copies of those, like four or five copies of each in case there was blood on them.
And so it was quite a challenge because they had to test out each rig and show me what it was like. And it really came down to the wire because you know how film goes: it’s always squeezed in. So yeah, it was just a lot of back and forth. And I told him I wanted it to feel like an animal or like an animal and also an insect at times, like an earthworm or a serpent. Or also like a strange cat-like creature. And so that’s how I gave him the references, that it had to be animal-like and I didn’t want it to have superpowers in a way that it flew or something, you know. It had to remain sort of grounded in this animal-like reality.
Yeah, I see that. Especially the insect reference. I see that a lot. So that really came through. I also wanted to ask: SLAXX premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival and now it’s premiering streaming on Shudder. What has that journey been like, from the premiere at the festival until now?
Elza Kephart: Well, you know, with COVID it’s just been a super emotional rollercoaster, I have to say. So, I mean, we didn’t know until the last — not last minute, I’m exaggerating — but we didn’t know what was going to happen. Was Fantasia going to happen at all? Was it going to be live? So that was really hard to maneuver. And then it did premiere in theaters in Montreal. So we got to do a mini live premiere, which was great. And then when we started to realize how excited Shudder was, like, we knew we had a deal with them but when we started to really talk to them we were like, “Oh my God, this is gonna be it. Like, this is it. This is online, people are still in COVID mode. So, online is actually a good thing. It’s not a bad thing.” I think as we realized Shudder’s excitement, I became more relieved because I thought SLAXX would just sort of like *demonstrates a steep dive with her hand and makes a crash landing sound* veer off the map. So, yeah, it’s been super exhilarating. Actually, these past few months of prepping for it, I’ve gotten my mojo back.
Good! I think you’ve done quite a few interviews at this point, based on premiering at the festival and premiering now. Is there something that you want to talk about that no one’s asked about, that you’re surprised no one has mentioned to you?
Elza Kephart: I mean, I would say that I really want to talk about — I mean, I did talk about with you the consuming aspects. To me, that’s what I really, really like people to come out of it [with]. But also, no one’s really asked about being a woman horror filmmaker that much, which is great. I think that means we’ve sort of come upon parity. And I guess I would say that I think it’s really important for women who want to make horror films to make them, because I think as our world is coming, as the balance maybe in the Western world is coming back between men and women, I think it’s important that women open up their dark sides so people can see our dark imagination. And instead of just having one voice, one way of seeing horror, I would encourage all the women out there who want to make horror films to just really dive in and all the women who love horror films to really be active and support other horror women filmmakers, because I do feel a difference between men and women. Not in a bad way. But I think it’s…important that as many women make horror films as men.
Yeah, because I feel like so many horror fans are women. But you don’t see that reflected perhaps in who’s in power or who’s making the films in terms of who has access. Obviously, there are a lot of women and non-binary people out there who want to be making horror films. But perhaps they don’t have the same opportunities, especially if it’s women of color, especially. So if there are female horror filmmakers out there, do you have advice for them?
Elza Kephart: Yeah, I would say the horror community has always been really supportive. Patricia and I made our first feature when we were 24. And we didn’t know anything, I mean, we were horror fans, but we didn’t realize how supportive the community was. So even if we made, like, a no-budget zombie movie, the support was so amazing. That really showed that no matter what, you can make a movie and it’ll be accepted if it’s got a unique perspective. So I think if women who want to make horror are listening, I would say the best thing to do is to make a film. And that might be easy to say, but I think now with cell phones and with computers, you can make a very low-budget film. Like, we shot on 35mm in 2001. So now the possibilities are endless.
I would say scrimp and save, get all your friends and family and come up with a really clever concept. Like, I think that’s what we realized with SLAXX. We had a lot of different ideas. And finally, we’re like, “No, we need to breakthrough. And we’re going to do it with this insane idea.” So take the time, maybe, to really think of a great idea that hasn’t been done before, or a great point of view that will shine through even if you don’t have the highest glossiest means, because horror fans know when something has not been done before and they’ll latch on to it and they’ll forgive any sort of technical hiccups. Like, for sure Graveyard Alive, if people go back and see this film, the makeup’s sort of wonky and sometimes the sets don’t look quite right. But I think it worked because it was a unique perspective. So for sure women and women of color have a unique perspective to bring to horror. So, we need to hear it. So you know, try as much as possible to make your film and get it out into festivals and connect with women in horror. Like, you know, I love to help out young women. So, if anyone’s out there, send me a Facebook message.
You mentioned you also wrote Graveyard Alive with Patricia Gomez. Are you working on something else, another horror movie together?
Elza Kephart: Yeah, yeah, for sure. We’ve been working together for more than 20 years. So, we’ve been developing a TV show for a long time about a vampire geneticist who lives in the suburbs with his human wife who’s about to have a baby, and he’s trying to pass as human. And then his vampire relatives come knocking on his door because they need his help, because they’re actually dying off. So, vampires are mortal on our show. And so it creates a cataclysmic culture clash. So that’s something that we’ve been developing for a few years. And then we have one…it’s like SLAXX too, but with trees. So, it’s about a young priest who’s called into a small medieval village to examine miracles. But he soon realizes that the miracles are actually an ecosystem that’s under attack trying to communicate with him so he will become a shaman and help save the ecosystem. So it’s like, you know, an ecological, I don’t know, coming-of-age Giallo, because there’s going to be a lot of deaths also, but with trees this time?
I’m excited about both of those, to be honest…like, don’t be afraid to try something that’s strange or doesn’t seem like it fits well, because that sounds like an amazing combination.
Elza Kephart: You have to. You have to do something that’s out there. Otherwise, if you do something that everyone’s seen before, you’re never gonna get noticed, I think.
You mentioned kind of expecting SLAXX to just drop out [of the public eye]. Have you been surprised that people have been so excited about it and have been talking about it so much?
Elza Kephart: Yeah! I don’t know why I’m surprised because it’s such an insane premise that everyone’s been wanting to see for a long time. But I guess I’m…I’m not pessimistic by nature, but because COVID sort of just dampened everything down, I was like, “Well, I don’t know what’s gonna happen to it.” So I’m really, really, really thrilled and it’s been a really, really long road. It’s been my life’s work, basically, trying to get this film and just finally breakthrough. So I’m super psyched.