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"Fear Teaches Us A Lot About Ourselves" - An Interview with Ginger Snaps Writer Karen Walton

Interviews
by Kerensa Cadenas
October 31, 2013 3:14 PM
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Ginger Snaps
Ginger Snaps

As we've explored in this month's horror series, there's a lot--both good and bad--to discuss when it comes to the intersection of horror, women and feminism. One movie that continues to come up in feminist horror discussion is Ginger Snaps.

Ginger Snaps follows two sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) who have always been fascinated with death, even enacting a childhood pact to die together. Rashes of dog killings have been occurring in their hometown. When the two are on their way to cause some trouble, they are attacked by the creature responsible for the recent attacks. Ginger is wounded and Brigitte cares for her but Ginger eventually begins to transform into a monstrous being. The film is wonderful because it focuses primarily on the relationship between the sisters depicting the bonds between women as important but also shows how they can be equally fraught. It also uses horror to depict the coming of age process exactly how it feels--bloody, angsty and extremely messy.

Women and Hollywood talked to Karen Walton, writer of Ginger Snaps and an executive producer/writer on one of our favorite new shows, Orphan Black, about screenwriting, horror and the inspiration for Ginger Snaps.

Women and Hollywood: How did you get started as a screenwriter?

Karen Walton: That's a long story involving the kindness of many strangers. The short version is, somebody told me I should try writing. Actually, a lot of people tried to get me to try writing, long before I thought I was 'the writing type'.

I have an Honors Degree in Drama from the University of Alberta, but when it was done I knew a life in modern theatre was not for me. While figuring out what the hell I might do instead of theatre, I spent a couple of days on a horror film doing stunt work. I'd never been behind the camera before, and I loved everything about it. I joined the local film co-op - The Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta - because you could trade skills for experience. These indie filmmakers were making their own stuff their own way, all the time. Instant education.

The summer gig turned into my day job. I was an arts administrator who helped make indie flicks. At the filmmakers' encouragement, I tried shooting a couple of shorts of my own. Directing was stressful, it was not my strength. But writing the scripts and helping others with their scripts - that was a gas. Making stuff up the way I wanted to see it was the biggest kick I ever experienced.

To try something longer, I entered a half-hour radio drama contest with the national public broadcaster, CBC. To my surprise, I won. And that opened doors in film and television, because that broadcaster was looking to cultivate new Canadian talent --especially women who could write.

My unofficial industry mentor became a fellow who isn't with us any more, Mr. Jim Burt - then, Head of Movies and Miniseries at CBC Television. Jim was well-known in our industry for fostering new voices, and he too encouraged mine. He wrote an important support letter that helped me get into the Canadian Film Centre. Since his passing, a writing prize in his memory has been established to continue to recognize new writing talents in Canada.

So the punchline is, I lucked out. I come from a beautiful country where encouragement - no matter where you lived - was valued by some really talented people in our business, who were thinking about legacy, diversity and representation. I lucked out. Right place, right time, kind strangers.

WaH: Was writing a horror film something you always had imagined writing?

KW: No, because I'd never imagined myself writing at all until I was almost 30. And horror films weren't to my taste, at least the super popular (slasher-y) ones of the day back then. The first novel I ever loved as a kid was Frankenstein, and I was always a crazy Hitchcock and Polanski fan... but I never saw myself - a square spazzy girl from the suburbs - writing anything that would horrify anyone. Or so I thought...

WaH: What was the inspiration/process for writing Ginger Snaps?

KW: The director, John Fawcett, was the inspiration and - here's that encouragement thing again - responsible for helping me find the patience and insight required to write my first film... let alone my first horror film. I'd spec'd one feature length script before Ginger. He said, "I want to do a teen girl werewolf movie" and I said, "That's nice." He said, "You should write it."

And I laughed and said no with a long tirade about women being horror's cliche victims, issues of depiction, etc. And then John said, "that's exactly why you should write one."

The process was simple, really. We just did it. It took five years from first stab to camera. We all had other jobs to pay the rent. Ginger Snaps is an independent Canadian film. It was also going to be a film we made our way, or we didn't want to make it at all. John gave me an open start, the support to do/say what I wanted. Then we'd pour over pages together - a crucial part of my development, craft-wise, was working on a screenplay actively with an extremely talented working director and our story editor, Ken Chubb. When we had what we needed, we asked an independent producer, Steve Hoban, we really wanted to work with if he'd take a look. He loved it and we started looking for investment - public and private funds in Canada to get it camera-ready, get a Canadian distributor and then qualify to compete for the (very small amount of) money available here to shoot it. We were lucky. People liked the team and the script. Greenlight.

WaH: The numbers for women working in horror are low, why do you think it's hard for women working in the horror genre?

KW: I always have to think hard about how I answer this one, because I'm not working in Hollywood with the sheer volume of historic, systemic issues - gender-based or otherwise - that you all deal with there. For my side of the border, I can say it isn't hard, but it can be hard work. Traditionally the genre here is dominated by men. White men. But we have many cultures here that have long revered strong women. My own experience has been mostly positive, but biases about what folks expect you to be like and write like, and do in any given professional situation can still be off-putting. If that makes you uncomfortable, you're in for a hard road. And not just because you're a woman. Because you want to write; writing requires a kind of stubborn tenacity and a sense of self, a pride in one's own values - that some people - and particularly some women - don't want to have to brandish when it gets super gonad-y out there. I didn't want to write unless I could say, and think for myself. I looked to peers that I not only respected but those that supported that. I finished becoming who I am today by sticking up for myself as a voice, but that is in part thanks to the huge role the good guys I chose to work with played in my professional development. Some really terrific human beings who loved horror welcomed me with open arms.

WaH: Do you have any advice for women who are interested in screenwriting?

KW: My advice is, beware of advice. Consider your sources carefully. Look them up. See if you respect what they've made. Get educated. Be informed about who's real and who isn't. Study your craft and your industry, practice all the time, challenge yourself - write things you think you can't, try things you have been told you shouldn't try - leave room for surprises, and learn how to collaborate. No one does this alone, no one goes to the cinema to see a screenplay: filmmaking and television series are team sports. Look for the best team for you. Plan, budget your time, money and spirit. You need all three to get serious work done. Never say no because something scares you. Never say yes because you're flattered. Stay open, but stay proud. It never gets easy. Get over that part. Get on with it.

WaH: What are some of your favorite horror movies? Any women-centric ones?

KW: My favorite horror movies all provoke the hell out of me. I love social commentary, which I think most horror is about. My favorites? Repulsion and Dead Ringers. And then, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining... and on we go, a long list from there. Films made by men, about women being terrorized by... themselves, their cultures or weird male morays. Terrorized by those they've chosen to have around them; scrambling to triumph on their own terms. I find the emotional truths in these kinds of films just as shocking today as I did the first time I saw them. They speak to me. In a deliciously gross, electrifying - 'I need to respond to this message!' sort of way. Fear teaches us a lot about ourselves. Horror makes me want to act on that education.

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