This Wednesday, June 3, Berkshire County, the first feature from Canadian director and Canadian Film Centre alumus Audrey Cummings hits theatres for the first time as a part of A71’s Canadian Indie Film Series (it will open in select theatres, such as Toronto, Ottawa and Whitby, starting June 5). The film plays off the “babysitter in peril” tradition set by classic horrors such as Halloween and When a Stranger Calls, pitting bullied teenage protagonist Kylie (Alysa King) against a group of random intruders coming after her and the two children she’s been charged with babysitting on — of all nights! — Halloween.
Cinefilles got a chance to pick Cummings’ brain about the film last week and, naturally, we got to talking about women in horror, both behind the camera and in front of it. Read the full transcript below and check out the Berkshire County site for more info on how to see the film.
Congratulations on the film. I saw you won a prize at Shriekfest and you were the first female director to win it!
Audrey Cummings: Yes! First in the 14-year history of the festival. It’s pretty incredible.
Isn’t it kind of weird that it’s taken this long to have a female director win a prize?
As a female horror fan, I’m familiar with a lot of great female directors, especially Canadian ones. It almost seems like Canada is a great place to be a female horror director. What do you think?
AC: I think overall I’m seeing a lot more. I would agree, definitely, in Canada.
I’ve travelled a bit with the film on the film festival circuit and everyone was saying at all the festivals, “We’ve seen more film submissions this year from females than we’ve ever seen.” So I think, in general, women are breaking out more in the genre this year.
I believe you’re a female horror fan as well, right?
Well, you must see that there a lot of women who love horror out there, so it only makes sense that there would be lots of women wanting to make it too.
AC: [The industry] started realizing a couple years ago with the movie Orphan with that little, weird child-person [Laughs]. They started realizing that the biggest demographic that was going to movies, that does go to see horror movies, is female … teen female. And Orphan is the one that [got them] to start noticing that.
And I’ve always loved [horror]. I mean, as a kid, the first film I ever saw in theatres was E.T. And the first TV series I remember being obsessed with was not a kid show but V. The original V.
Do you have a favourite horror movie of all-time? Or maybe just one that you look to for inspiration?
AC: Well, with Berkshire, it was kind of a mix of a couple things. I love the old Babysitter in Peril movies from the 1970s. Those are the movies that, when I was growing up, when I was watching these movies in the ’80s, I was seeing. So, they had a lot of influence on me.
But also, The Shining is one of my all-times. I love The Shining. I think there’s maybe [Stanley] Kubrick’s influence in Berkshire. Kubrickian influences.
I suppose you could even see that in the masks that the villains after Kylie wear. Speaking of those masks, they reminded me a lot of You’re Next. Have you seen that film?
AC: It’s a funny story. We actually had finished shooting the movie — either we had finished shooting the movie or just started shooting the movie, but it was way, way down the road — and the writer, Chris Gamble, saw the trailer for You’re Next. And we just went, “Whaaaaat?” It was just a collective “Whaaaaat?”
Scary masks are in, I guess.
They’re always in! I think one of the scariest films I’ve seen is The Strangers, and I think it’s mainly because of the masks.
Did you guys always know you wanted to use pig masks here, though?
AC: We always wanted the pig masks because we kind of wanted to weave in a fairy tale element. We were sort of weaving in Little Red Riding Hood [ed’s note: Kylie dresses as Little Red at a Halloween party], the Three Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf — who is supposed to be Marcus, the high school jerk. You’ll see threads throughout the film, so we always knew we wanted it to be pigs based on that. We tried a whole bunch of different types of masks, but ultimately, the pigs were the ones that just felt right for the story.
It’s especially shocking when you see a child wearing the pig’s mask at one point.
AC: He was very good too!
You kind of took some chances there, having a child villain while putting the other children in definite danger. What are your limits as horror filmmaker? Do you think there are places you need to go, or places you shouldn’t?
AC: I think it depends on the film. Some people love torture porn. For me, the kind of story I wanted to tell was maybe more psychological at a certain level than getting into too much gore. It was kind of a choice to keep it cleaner that way.
What I was really trying to do was keep it kind of realistic looking. When I was growing up and I was a babysitter, I was scared shitless about noises in the house when you’re babysitting and that kind of stuff. I just kind of wanted to bring that back.
I see that Chris is credited the writer of the film, but how much did you guys collaborate in terms of creating this story and these characters?
AC: A lot. Chris and I work really well together. We’re just a really great team. It’s a great partnership.
In this, we were trying to think of what kind of story we could achieve on a relatively low budget that we could do a really good job with. And then I loved the old Babysitter in Peril movies, so I said to Chris, “I’d love to be able to do those kind of films.” We just sort of brainstormed some ideas and then he went off and wrote this amazing first draft. Then I don’t know how many drafts later …
It kind of feels like [writing] never ends! Even on set we were writing. A lot of things changed on set with the house. We never realized that the house went to foreclosure halfway into shooting. We were supposed to get the house all furnished and everything and when we got there, it was totally empty and echo-y. So we had to rewrite — Chris had to rewrite — so that the parents are moving out. And then the sheriff came to change the lock on the door and he actually extended it a couple more days. So we had to shoot things really, really quickly from inside the house in order to appease him and the bank and whatever.
What did you want to achieve with the Kylie character and how did you want to make her stick out from the Final Girls of the past that we know?
AC: For me, being a female filmmaker, I want to tell stories of women. In this one, I wanted to tell the story of a timid, awkward kind of girl who needs to learn to stand up for herself and needs to learn to take the bull by the horns. And Chris is really good at writing strong female characters, so we just kind of went that route.
When I watched the ending, I got the sense you could continue this story into another film. Do you feel like you can make a sequel to this? Do you want to make a sequel to this?
AC: Interestingly, Berkshire 2 and 3 scripts are already written!
AC: Yeah! Chris was really inspired … There’s like 13, 14 drafts to go, but they’re on their first drafts, so they are potentially a go!
And then Chris and I have been working for three years now on a sci-fi, a thriller sci-fi, called Disconnect. So that one we’re going to start showing talent really soon, like in the next month. So, that’s the next one and then, hopefully, we’ll come back to Berkshire 2 and 3.
Would you be interested in staying on as a director for the sequels as well?
I have to tell you, I love the horror fans out there. When we finished this film, I was a little nervous. For me, it was a beautifully crafted film and it was what I wanted, but I wasn’t sure how the horror audience was going to take it because it’s not torture porn, I’m not going super gory. I really wasn’t sure how it was going to be received, so it’s been a really pleasant surprise that the horror audience seems to really connect with it. And I think they’re connecting with it because it has such a beautiful story arc and the characters are well developed.
And you’re throwing back to some genres and archetypes that we know, but putting a twist on them as well.
AC: Yeah! It’s been so much fun. Like, horror film festivals are a blast. You don’t know who’s coming in. Like, one screening a guy came in with this alien worm creature coming out of his chest! They’re just fun people and they’re hooting and hollering at the screen and they’re like “Kill the fuckers!” I want to keep making movies because I just love this audience. They’re not cynical. They’re very accepting.
Catch Berkshire County at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema, Ottawa’s Landmark Kanata, and Whitby’s Landmark Cinemas starting June 5.
Images via A71 Entertainment.