Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Women in Horror Month Interview: Heather Wixson
Heather Wixson is the Managing Editor of Daily Dead, she’s got about a decade writing for the horror genre under her belt, and this year she’ll add published author to her resume once she releases Monster Squad, a collection of interviews she conducted with some of the great FX artists in the business.
For my second Women in Horror Month interview, I sat down with Heather and we took a deep dive into her history with the genre, how she fits into the horror community as a woman, and some very interesting news about the upcoming book. I’ll warn you upfront this is a bit of a long one, but Heather has a lot of really cool stuff to share so I know you won’t be disappointed.
Let’s get straight into the good stuff: You’re working on a book! What can you divulge about it?
Well, I guess I can start by talking about where the idea came from. It’s not exactly revolutionary, yet no one had really done it. We’ve seen a lot of books about how monsters are made, we’ve seen books profiling some of the bigger names in special fx which obviously is very warranted. The Stan Winston book is great and I think Rick Baker is working on a book.
I realized if you look at a movie like An American Werewolf in London, Rick Baker’s genius is front and center in that movie. But there were also about forty other guys on that crew who didn’t sleep for months, toiling away on that set. Being a writer you realize everything that you write you put a little piece of yourself into. And I just thought why not talk to these other people who have all been on these journeys because their heart and soul is on the screen too.
It started off a few years ago. I had done this thing called “Stan Winston Week” over on Daily Dead where we celebrated five different movies that Stan helped make into these iconic cinematic experiences. During some of my interview time talking to all of these folks about Stan I got to know Howard Berger a little bit and I thought his story was really interesting. If I’m remembering this correctly he lost his dad at an early age, and his outlet was being creative and working on masks and stuff like that. He realized one day that Stan’s shop was about a mile and a half away from where he was living. So he gathered up all of the things that he was working on or had created and put them in a box and basically walked up to Stan’s shop in the summer with the 90-plus degree heat barrelling down on him to go meet his hero. And Stan didn’t know that this kid was showing up on his door either. But he was really gracious, invited Howard in, looked at his stuff and let him look around his shop and said “I see that you’re really passionate about this. You’ll always have a place to work here, but you have to finish school.” So Howard would work there on the weekends and over summer break but he always had to be doing well in school. The minute Howard graduated high school he knocks on Stan’s door and said “OK, I get it. Put me to work.” And that’s how he got his start.
It made me realize, everybody has a story whether they think it or not and it’s interesting because a lot of folks that I’ve talked to about this expect me to come at them with “Well how did you put this device together” or “What was your inspiration behind this design?” A lot of people have been very surprised that that’s not really what I’m doing at all. This is people’s life stories. This is their journeys as artists.
And what’s really cool, and I haven’t really talked about this yet, is that when I first started this my main goal was to get like twenty solid interviews. I’m actually almost closer to forty now. So rather than try to combine everybody into one book and really condense it, it’s actually being turned into two. They’re both not going to be out at the same time because that would be insane of me to try and get done. The first part will be out some time in early summer.
That is amazing! Now, since this interview is specifically for Women in Horror Month, did you get to talk to any women in the effects field?
Lack of female representation is an issue in a lot of different facets in Hollywood, and it also can be said for special effects. If you look at the crews for most of these movies 95% of them generally were men. And I’m focusing on a certain time period of filmmaking from the 70s through the late 90s/early 2000s. So there’s a lot of talented female artists who have come up in the last few years but they don’t quite fit the mold of what I’m doing so trying to find women from that era has been very tough. But I have talked to a few.
One of the people that I’ve spoken to is Michele Burke. She’s won two Oscars in her career which is pretty amazing and she won an Oscar for the very first movie that she oversaw which was Quest for Fire. Another one was Jennifer Aspinall who was actually the person who created the very first Toxic Avenger, so she is responsible for Toxie. I have two for the first and I’m aiming for four in the second if I can pull it off. It’s tough because you want to make sure women are represented and also, for me, making sure it’s represented across ethnicities as well. I didn’t just want a book of twenty white guys telling everybody their story. It was important for me to make sure I dug a little deeper. I went international a little bit, too, so it wasn’t one constituency being represented.
You’ve been posting a lot of really great stuff on the Twitter feed (@MonsterSquadFX) for the book. Where are you getting those pictures from?
You know, a few different resources. The internet is a wonderful place if you just dig deep enough down the rabbit hole you can find a lot of really cool stuff. Some stuff has come from people that I’ve been working with on the project and they’ve given me the OK to share stuff. Some of the stuff I’ve just sort of randomly collected from over the years from interviews I’ve done, too. I wanted to build up interest and there’s not a lot I can really do now other than giving weekly updates so I wanted to do something fun that got people ready for it and didn’t feel like a total waste of time.
I love the one of Jason playing pool. That was very cool. That’s probably one of my favorite ones that I’ve seen so far.
I know right I wish they had done that more. There’s a really great one out there too where Robert Englund was messing with people out in Hollywood (probably for Nightmare on Elm Street 3) where he’s sitting on a bench with a couple of old ladies and they look really nervous. I always love that one, too.
You mentioned that you were looking to get into the stories and caught some people off guard, and that’s what looking to do with you a little bit today. Do you remember what first got you into the horror genre and was there a particular movie that did it?
I remember my very first horror movie in a theater because when I was growing up I had a single mom so back then you just kind of took your kids to everything because babysitters were expensive. So my very first movie in a theater which totally dates me was American Werewolf in London. And I was like three so I don’t remember much of it. I remember watching the movie theater scene and being really scared because we were in a movie theater and I don’t think I could process that. There’s little things I kind of remember, and then I remember my aunt was with us and she was always really scared of horror movies. So she was like, “Oh I think Heather looks scared, I’m going to take her out.” And then I remember playing Pac-man for the next forty minutes while my mom finished American Werewolf.
But I think the first movie that really, really stuck with me I think was Salem’s Lot. For some reason my mom was really into Stephen King as most of our parents were of that era. That and Alien were the first two I remember watching more than once. Alien terrified me. Alien still scares me if I’m in the right mood and it’s dark enough.
And then very shortly after that, which I guess sort of explains why i became such a big fan of special FX, I was really obsessed with the making of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” because they put out a tape of the music video and then a “making of” on it. And we use to watch that thing all the time. And that was actually how I learned about Vincent Price. So that was all when it started to click for me and I kind of got obsessed.
For me and other people I’ve talked to, horror has started as one thing and evolved into something else as we’ve reached adulthood. Is that something that you’ve seen in yourself?
Oh yeah for sure. I think as a kid it was an escape because, having a single mom, she had a lot on her plate. Some years she was working two jobs which meant I was constantly carted off between babysitters. And I think part of me would watch those movies by way of connecting with her when she wasn’t around because that was kind of her thing when I was a kid. She loved monster movies. She grew up on Dark Shadows.
For me it became the thing that sort of challenged myself, too, because I wanted to feel like i was fearless but I didn’t always know if I was. So it was always a good way to push myself. And as I got older, horror started to represent my anger at certain things because to be a teenager is to just be terrible and you have to manifest your anger somehow.
And as an adult it’s basically become my outlet. As a kid I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve been writing ever since i was six years old but if you would have told me as a kid growing up that one day I could write about horror..how would that even work? The only thing i even knew as a kid was Fangoria but i never imagined anything like that would ever be possible. So now as an adult i think i relish it even more. It’s weird, I don’t even watch horror to get scared anymore because very little scares me in terms of what we see these days.
Back then it was about scaring me. Now it’s about pushing me to examine things about myself that maybe I wouldn’t have done otherwise or think about things in society or how we view other people and stuff like that. So it’s interesting, but I think that goes with a lot of us who grew up loving it. We still get to celebrate it as adults. Some folks they grow up and they grow out of it because that’s what they think they do and i feel very fortunate that i haven’t had to do that.
Was there a standout movie for you in 2016?
If I’m keeping it pure genre stuff (I think i can come out and say this now that the director has come out and said that he intended for it to be a horror movie) it really is a back and forth between Green Room and Don’t Breathe. Jeremey Saulnier has said [of Green Room] “Yes, it is a horror movie” so I feel confidently I can now declare it a horror movie. I mean, horror is subjective and anything is what you want it to be so I’m not going to pish posh on anybody who doesn’t say it’s horror. But the director intended it to be horror and I find it very horrific.
Don’t Breathe...we’re all commending Fede’s [Alvarez] ability to do a really great cat and mouse thriller with a really solid cast, especially Stephen Lang. But on a technical level if you go back and watch that movie for the sound, for the camera work that he does in that film? For the cinematography? He is astounding and had it not been a horror movie, that movie, for different technical reasons, would be up for Oscars. It’s a horror movie so they’re not going to consider it but there’s some really cool stuff that they get done in that movie that I haven’t really seen a lot of genre movies hone in on the way that they did.
But Green Room itself is just an absolute masterpiece. Like, completely flawless. My heart aches every time I think about it that this year...having Anton Yelchin have a brilliant performance in Green Room and really coming into his own in Star Trek Beyond, and now he’s gone. That makes me so infinitely sad.
You mentioned that as a kid you couldn’t imagine that you could be doing horror writing for a living. How did you get into the business?
Well actually it’s funny because coming up this is going to be my 10th year, which I can hardly believe. And how it all started, it’s sort of a weird story. I had given up on writing after college because you go focus on the jobs that are going to make you money. When you grow up from that certain area, you go to school, you go to college, you get married, you have a husband, you have a house, kids, and that’s your life. That’s what your life is supposed to be. And I had a lot of that stuff, but it just didn’t feel right.
So in 2007 I was feeling like something just wasn’t there and I had started writing again part time for the local newspaper doing town hall meetings and crap like that. But you can only get so excited about a new sidewalk being put in or a new swing-set coming to the local park. So I was at Flashback Weekend which is a convention in Chicago and I was just there as a fan. I had been there a few years before and that year in particular at Adam Green was there with Hatchet. And this was before the movie came out so he was just kind of there pitching us on his movie and during his panel he shared a really great story about Dee Snider. Essentially as a kid he wrote Dee snider and he wrote him back, and was like “Hey, follow your dreams. Thanks for being a fan, blah blah blah.” Right before Hatchet was about to premier in New York, they had like a festival screening or something to that effect and basically Dee snider showed up to walk Adam Green down the red carpet at his very first movie premier. And just the way Adam talked about how if you’re passionate about something, if you love something got for it and don’t be afraid to take the risk.
So the more I kept thinking about Adam’s talk, it really stuck with me for some reason. And he was really cool. I met him that weekend for the first time ever and he was really awesome for sharing his story. A few weeks later I wind up finding this post on Craig’s list for this brand new horror site called Terror Tube and they were looking for reviewers. It was no pay, so even back then nobody got paid (laughs). I reached out to the guy, explained to him who I was and that I’d been writing forever but never really properly wrote about horror as a profession. But I wanted to take a chance and he gave me one. I still remember my very first review was for The Invasion, that terrible Nicole Kidman movie.
Oh, you mean the quasi-remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
I have not seen it. I’m told I’m not missing anything.
No, you’re really not. I was like “Oh this is what criticism is. I’m going to start with this movie. I guess it’s not all fun.” So I wrote my first review, he posted it, and it felt like such a victory. And it was nothing because the site was so tiny. This was back in the days of MySpace and I messaged Adam Green on there. And we actually became friends because of that. And he was one of the very first people to kind of go “Hey, you want to do an interview? Let’s talk!” And he introduced me to his publicist for Hatchet, who I’ve worked with hundreds of times since. So then I just started to keep the ball rolling and then I realized there’s a lot of these really cool festivals. This was before every city kind of had a horror film festival. So I flew out that October [to Los Angeles] to cover Screamfest, and I did this all out of my own money because i just wanted to have that experience. And while I was out there I got to hang out with Adam in person a little bit. At this point I believe I was covering another movie because I did another interview with this director...and it was just a really good trial by fire doing these little things to keep myself going and then over the course of 2008.
Then Adam came to me on a project he was producing and said “There’s some really good opportunities for you to go in depth here if you want to talk to everybody involved.” And it was for Paul Solet’s Grace. So I did a lot of interviews for that, and we were the only site that was really covering it in depth. And when I found out that Grace was going to Sundance, I decided “I have to be there.” I’d been there alongside these people talking to them for like eight months at this point, so how could I not go to Sundance and see this movie premier? Prior to that, one of my side jobs was hosting these jewelry parties that people used to have. I sold off all of these jewelry kits to my ladies at my day job, and I saved up all this money to take to Sundance that year.
And that was basically how I broke into everything because had I not gone to Sundance, I wouldn’t have been contacted by Dread Central to come on and do some stuff for them. Then I was at Dread for almost five years. It was a crazy journey. It was one of the biggest risks I ever took, and I put a lot of time, effort, and honestly my own money into it. And it was tough, especially when at that point I had a husband who was like “Why are you spending all of this money to go this and that,” basically saying I’m going on all of these glorified vacations. But for me it was all leading to something, and it did. It really did. Here I am ten years later and i’m still doing it, and it’s been amazing. I could not imagine having a better life than i have right now. And it did mean that i had to go through some crap to get there but it was worth it.
One of the things that I love about your writing is that you get into your personal story and what your personal connection is to horror. Do you think that there are aspects of the horror genre that you experience differently as a woman?
I have to make sure when I’m going to do something that one, it’s going to be worth someone’s time reading it and two, if they’re reading mine there needs to be a reason because they could read 99 other reviews, so why are they reading mine? Reviews are very personal because when we go into a movie, we all see things the way our own life reflects them. I’m going to see a movie very differently than you’re going to see a movie or the way anybody else out there is going to see a movie. There’s plenty of reviews out there that are very cut and dry in terms of “here’s your opening paragraph, here’s your descriptor paragraph, here’s three paragraphs about the movie.” You could almost set a clock to them. And that’s nothing against the people writing them. I wouldn’t say my reviews are better than 80% of the reviews out there, but it’s a different review that you’re going to read than 80% of the other sites have out there. It may be better, it may be worse, but it’s still going to be different.
You look at the technical aspects and everything like that, and I do that too, because for me being out here and being in this culture really gives you an appreciation for what goes into making a movie, which is why I’m probably a little bit kinder than a lot of folks because it’s a really tough thing to get a movie made. But also i’m going to see a movie like The Love Witch and maybe as a woman I’m going to see things a little differently than a guy would. And that doesn’t make either one of us necessarily more right or wrong than the other but if i can see something that maybe opens up a discussion, makes someone realize something.
One of the things about horror is that it touts itself as being the community for the disenfranchised, the people who are kind of on the fringe a little bit more. But the flip side of that is that, like many communities, it’s a bit of a boys club. Has that been something that you’ve experienced? What’s been your experience as a woman in the genre?
You know, I have to tread very lightly (laughs). Truthfully, yes, it really is a boys club. Honestly, there are people that I’ve worked with who...I’ve been in situations where I have been one hundred percent absolutely right about a situation, known exactly how things should get taken care of, but I’ve had my opinion undermined because I’m a woman. And I’ve watched those things blow up. I don’t say anything because, you know, that’s life.
Coming out here and trying to work at the sort of level where a lot of these guys already were and me being so new when I first moved out here in 2009, that was so intimidating for me. And I’m not saying this to bash the guys out here, but they’ve already had years and years to have history. They’re more comfortable being around each other. So if you interject a girl into the mix they don’t always know how to contend with that. And realistically once you talk to me, you realize I’m so not a girl in a lot of ways. I’m probably the least girly girl that I know. Of course I wear makeup or whatever but I could give a shit about half the things women really care about. And I don’t mean that to downplay women either. I’m just, sort of...I’m just me. I’ve always been the weird girl. I’ve got the mindset of a 12-year old. I laugh at poop jokes too. A lot of guys think girls aren’t into those sorts of things.
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter because it has, it always has. It’s weird because I never really saw it until the last few years. I remember once at an event someone referred to me, instead of a writer or a journalist, as this project’s fangirl because I had written about it so much. And I think that was the first time I was like “what?” Like if I was a guy you would never call me a fanboy. I was like “Well, shit, I guess this stuff really does matter.”
It’s tough, and I think it comes back to realizing why we’re all in this. And some folks forget that. Some folks sort of put their ego ahead of their community or ahead of the genre. And me, I’m just here to write about horror movies. Over the years I have just let some of the boys stuff go because what am I gonna do? I’m not going to grow a penis (laughs). It’s tough though. It is. And I give a lot of women out there credit because it’s really hard to talk about women issues without people looking at it like “oh, there they go again” because that’s so the immediate, knee-jerk reaction. But realistically, it’s really hard to be included in a lot of communities, especially creatively, that are generally male-dominated because once you do, either people have to figure out how to put you into that space or they have to figure out what to do with you. And then if you start to make your own space that can make people uncomfortable.
I don’t want to hold you up too much longer, but are there any particular women in the horror community that have been influential for you, either in your writing or just in general?
I had a teacher when I was in high school. For some reason she saw something in me, and I don’t know what it was. It had to be something, because here I am now. And I had her for all four years. I had a teacher and her name was Mrs. Garrett and she got divorced and went to Ms. Edwards. She was this really amazing teacher I had who for some reason would push me harder than anybody else. But I learned so much from her back then just about the art of interviewing because it is something that you have to learn. I’ll go to a junket and we’re doing interviews for 5-10 minutes so you’re doing a sit-down for it if you’re doing TV, and I’ll see people who have questions prepared and they have all these specific things lined out and I’ve never done that. I think I can count on my hand the amount of times I’ve ever really done that because for me interviews are a conversation. I think a lot of folks overthink it because once you ask your first question, the ball rolls and it’s going and you both are going back and forth. And you never know what they’re going to say in that answer to know where it’s going to go from there. They could say something so profoundly mind blowing that you would be dumb not to react to that. But then I’ve seen people where they just immediately go to question two because that’s all they can do because they’re so streamlined in their thought process. So for me I’ve always just treated everything about my career as one big conversation because one, I think it makes people feel way more comfortable, and two, you get way better stuff that way. People like that sort of natural feeling. You’re just there to talk to them. You’re not there just to get your sound bites and go. So that for me in terms of the interviewing and writing aspect of it, that’s been something in me ever since high school.
In terms of women in horror who sort of shaped my appreciation for what the genre is or what the genre has become or different aspects of it, there are a few. One is Mia Kerz from “Mike and Mia” at Flashback. They didn’t have to take a chance on having me come on and co-host. They had two co-hosts that had been there since I started going to Flashback in the early 2000s. So they had guys that they could rely on and they took a chance on me when they didn’t have to. Being able to become part of that family (I think this will be my 6th or 7th year coming up in 2017) has been amazing.
There’s been a few women here or there like Denise Gossett over at Shriekfest gave me a position on her board which...I didn’t realize I had to watch like 150 indie horror movies in like 3 months and that’s such a gargantuan task. But I really learned how to really dig into indie horror where if somebody only has thirty grand for their budget you definitely look at that movie a lot differently than you’re going to look at something like Lights Out or Don’t Breathe because obviously there’s a different spectrum. And just the level of respect for any film that came through her mailbox, it really showed me how to be respectful of movies even if you don’t love them, or maybe they’re not even particularly that great. So that was something kind of shaped me early on, too.
And this is something that sounds really weird, but somebody who taught me how to be really how to be a gracious person was Barbara Crampton who is just, honest to God, one of the loveliest people you will ever meet. Beyond the fact that she’s amazing as an actress and has been in a lot of really cool movies and has had a lot of really cool roles in her career, I just had a really nice conversation with her on the set where i was kind of at this weird crossroads. Life was really challenging in 2013 and early 2014, and we just had a really nice talk. And I can’t even explain it but the graciousness that came through helped me re-calibrate why I was doing what I was doing for a living and the kind of person i wanted to be because it would have been very easy for me to take everything that was happening at that moment and just feed off of that negativity. Because we had two pets who died really close together. REally bad circumstances lead to me leaving Dread Central. That’s a whole other ball of wax. I was happy to be over at Daily Dead but I was still kind of finding my footing there, dealing with a lot of stuff at home in terms of my situation with my mom. It was just this perfect storm of crap. And 20 minutes of just talking with Barbara...and it wasn’t even an interview. We were just talking. She put a lot of things in perspective. And just to see the way that day in, day out she lives her life 100% authentic to who she is as a person. With pure joy, pure enthusiasm, pure appreciation. With such humility, grace, and I just realized that I want to be that. Like, I’m never going to be Barbara Crampton, don’t get me wrong. I can try. But just to see everyday as a gift. To see every opportunity as something you should be appreciative for and grateful for.
It’s weird because I never really had a “female horror person” per se. But I’ve been able to sort of be involved with several women coming up at the same time so that’s been kind of cool. But there’s just not a lot of us out there in terms of female writers who cover just horror.
Any up and coming actresses or women filmmakers in 2017?
Oh gosh. Raw I think was probably one of my favorite movies at Fantastic Fest. It was a French film. Really great performances. I believe [writer-director Julia Ducournau] is a very up and coming filmmaker over there but it was an astounding piece of work that she put together for that movie. I can’t wait to watch it again because there are certain things where you kind of feel like the nature of sort of how she presents the frenzy of what this girl’s going through you kind of feel like you’re stuck in the center of that. So I want to see that again.
One thing I’m looking forward to that I haven’t seen yet is XX which is the [all-female directed] anthology. I really like the talent that they put together.
You can follow Heather on Twitter @thehorrorchick and you can keep up with updates on her book at @MonsterSquadFX.