Jovanka Vuckovic, who served as both a writer/director and associate producer on the horror anthology XX, had been considering the concept of a film where all of the directors contributing segments were women when she got a call from Todd Brown of XYZ Films. "It was amazing for this dude to call up and say, 'Hey, I can bring financing and we can be off to the races right away!'" she laughs, then adds: "That was four years ago."
There are challenges in making any film; there are unique challenges in making an anthology film; and there are also challenges in making one that features all female directors. XX had high-profile directors leave the project at various points in those four years. The production pursued various filmmakers of varying profiles—according to a Twitter Q&A they did before the film's LA premiere, despite the film's title, they reached out to two high-profile transgender filmmakers who ultimately didn't end up participating—and offered opportunities to creative folks who hadn't had the chance to helm a film before.
One of those people, St. Vincent's Annie Clark, seized the opportunity to direct a film. "I got a call from Todd Brown a little over a year ago asking if I wanted to try my hand at directing," She recalls. She met another producer on XX, Roxanne Benjamin, and the two began a collaboration with Clark behind the camera, Benjamin producing, and the two sharing the script credit.
The entire process of making a film like XX may have been a challenge that included fits and starts—Vuckovic completed her segment two years ago, while Benjamin only stepped in late to direct one of her own. "We lost another director at the very last minute because she got too busy, which is a great reason to lose her," Vuckovic says. "If Roxanne hadn't done that, we would have missed our Sundance deadline for the second year in a row, and I’m not so sure they would have been so welcoming to us a third year in a row."
Sometimes, though, taking a long time to get somewhere means that you arrive at exactly the right moment. That's a hard thing to argue given the reception that XX has received in the wake of its Sundance premiere. The film is a horror anthology with no stars in it, which means that typically, it's the sort of thing that would be one of the smaller projects to premiere at a festival like Sundance—but it was received enthusiastically as a symbol of women taking the spotlight for themselves at a time when women in all fields have stepped up to the task of doing so.
"It was honestly very surreal to be premiering the film in Park City right after the Women’s March, where there was a lot of different speakers talking about that specific thing," Benjamin says. "This movie is not representative of all women and all voices, but it is with a female voice. I think it is a good time for that to come out. There’s a lot written about the female perspective, and how we need more female filmmakers, and that's great, but I don’t see a big uptick among the number of films."
One women who does get to direct features also participated in XX: Karyn Kusama, who followed up last year's The Invitation with her contribution to the anthology, "Her Only Living Son." Kusama has spent a fair portion of her career being a Female Filmmaker with capital letters, spending the '00s working on studio pictures like Aeon Flux and Jennifer's Body and taking on the pressure that comes with that. Her career has been heating up again since The Invitation premiered at SXSW in 2015—she's directed episodes of Man in the High Castle, Billions, Masters of Sex, Halt and Catch Fire, and more—but she stayed attached to XX in that time because being one of four women making a short felt a lot like freedom to her.
"I felt a tremendous freedom because the mission of the project was simply to be myself," Kusama says. "It was kind of nice to be reminded that I don’t feel the urge to represent all of womanhood, or all of humanity—I simply want to tell an interesting story for myself and hope that it connects to other people. I felt a similar sense of insistence in the other work, too. As different as it is from one another, each film felt very bent on being itself. Which is further proof that a woman’s voice is not a monolithic thing. It’s an interesting experiment to get this anthology of four different voices, because the films, while sharing some thematic overlap, are all very different from one another."
The processes were different for each filmmaker, too. Kusama was excited to have the chance to delve into writing a script again (her last screenwriting credit was her 2001 debut, Girlfight); Benjamin hustled her film together in what Vuckovic described as "record time," while Vuckovic was the first out the gate, filming hers in five days during a Toronto blizzard. For Clark, meanwhile, the process of creating her short, "Birthday Party," was collaborative in ways that seemed downright comfortable.
"Roxanne would come over to my house and we would sit on a bearskin rug in front of a fire and talk about death," she says of her collaboration with Benjamin. "Somehow through all of those conversations came the outline of the story and the genesis of 'Birthday Party,' which is also an homage to Nick Cave in the title. It was very dark, and about halfway through, we realized, 'Oh, shit, we’re writing a comedy.' Still very dark, but that was kind of the avalanche that put everything in motion, and it just kind of flowed out from there."
"Birthday Party" is one of the draws to XX, if only because Clark's had such a high creative profile in the world of music/guitar gear/tacos. The fact that it's sandwiched between a slow-burn chiller like Vuckovic's "The Box" and a classic monster movie like Benjamin's "Don't Fall" is an example of how letting each woman make the film they're passionate about leads to a dynamic project.
That freedom came right from the top down, and it's something that the women involved in XX know represents a rare opportunity. "The most important aspect there was Magnolia telling us to just go and make whatever we want," Vuckovic says. "I got no notes on my script, and nobody came to my set from Magnolia. That’s the only time in my professional career as a writer/director that that’s gonna happen to me. They gave us the opportunity to do whatever we wanted, and I think that women need more opportunities to do that. And we need more opportunities to fail. We need to be allowed to fail the way that men fail. Can you imagine the responsibility on your shoulders if one male filmmaker spoke for every male filmmaker? We can’t take on that responsibility, but we can embrace XX as a symbol of progress, and a step in the right direction for more women directors."
XX is out on VOD, iTunes, and in select theaters today.