Interview With Jovanka Vuckovic Director Of The Guest
By James Whittington, Monday 26th August 2013

JV 1Last year at FrightFest we were treated to an astonishing short from Jovanka Vuckovic called The Captured Bird. This year she has delivered the equally impressive but totally different piece The Guest. Here this talented artist chats about her work and future plans.

HC: We first chatted last year when your beautiful short The Captured Bird was shown at FrightFest 2012. You must be pleased how this piece has been received across the globe?

JV: Pleased is an understatement! It has played over 60 festivals around the globe, earned four Best Short Film awards and opened theatrically for the Soska Sister’s American Mary in 25 theatres in Canada. I never dreamed it would have so much life. And it continues to thrive on DVD and iTunes rentals. I’m so grateful for everyone interested enough in the short film format to give it a look. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who has supported it.

HC: Has it opened doors for you at all?

JV: Well, because it was so arty and didn’t have any dialogue, it’s not the kind of thing that lands you a 60 million dollar feature. But it’s the movie that I wanted to make. Of course there was the initial flood of interest from agents in Hollywood but I didn’t start making films so that I could score a gig directing Final Destination 7 or the sequel to the remake of Carrie. I’m making the films that I want to make, with my friends. If Cronenberg can do it, so can I. [Laughs]. At any rate, yes, of course The Captured Bird was an incredible experience that introduced me to so many great people that I worked with again on a tiny short called Self Portrait and again on The Guest. I also learned some hard lessons on that film. But you do on every film.

HC: Where did the idea for The Guest come from?

JV: I made this short as an assignment for the Toronto International Film Festival Emerging Filmmakers Competition. They gave us a tiny budget, two months and a theme: MEMORY. One of the first things that came to mind while I was thinking about memory is how unreliable it is. And by extension, how much I love stories and films that feature unreliable narrators. So I started writing a brief script – it had to be under five minutes – about a man who trades his memories for something that is never revealed to us. We all do this in our lives. Subconsciously we block memories that are not favourable and distort and inflate memories we judge as pleasant. We construct our own reality this way. As far as films, my biggest inspiration was, believe it or not, The Mothman Prophecies; remember when Richard Gere is having that phone conversation with Indrid Cold (the Mothman) in the hotel? “Chaaaaap stickkkk.” That’s always stayed with me so The Guest is very much a direct homage to the basic creepiness of that scene: A man having a conversation with something that may or may not be real. I was also inspired by Session 9, another film that never reveals whether the protagonist is suffering a psychotic break or actually tormented by a supernatural menace. There are a few more subtle nods in there to other films that can be quite revealing about the main character, but I’ll leave that to the horror aficionados to discover. It’s a movie that asks a lot of questions and offers subtle answers. Who is Barlowe? Why did he trade his memories? What did he trade them for? Who is The Guest? What’s great about ambiguity is that it leaves stories open to interpretation, which gives the story more longevity. Look at Blade Runner, we’ll be arguing whether or not Deckard was a replicant until the sky falls.

But he IS a replicant!

HC: How long did it take to get the story and script right?

JV: Like I said, TIFF didn’t give us a lot of time so I wrote it in a few days. I sent the first draft to some filmmakers I trust who gave me some very valuable feedback. It was reading too much like a Faustian bargain, which isn’t what I wanted, so I made some changes to get it right.

HC: What sort of budget did you have?

JV: We had a small grant from TIFF and the rest came out of my own pocket. I’m actually amazed at how good it looks given the money I had to spend on it, which is a testament to the talents of the crew, especially our DP, Ian Anderson. He’s one of the busiest DPs in Toronto for good reason. I’m so lucky he said yes. His shots pretty much looked exactly like the photos in my look book. Unlike The Captured Bird, everyone worked for free on The Guest and we got a ton of gear for next to nothing. But they gave it their all and we’re really proud of this little film.

JV: It has some stunning imagery in it, were those scenes difficult to shoot?

HC: The stuff inside Anastasia Masaro’s house wasn’t too bad. She’s our production designer. Her place is so beautiful, she made it easy. But the white void stuff was shot in a make up school in Toronto – pretty much the only place that was willing to let us spill gallons of fake blood onto the floor. That was a set and you can imagine how difficult it was, with each blood effects take, not to splatter blood all over the white muslin! It’s was a technical nightmare to stage with fake floors and machinery that had a mind and direction of its own. But I had a blast doing that stuff. I tortured poor Jordan Gray by making him vomit blood for hours! And that’s my niece Izzy with the bleeding heart. What a trooper she was!

HC: The Captured Bird and The Guest are at opposite ends of film production, which was the hardest to make?

JV: I had to write, direct and produce The Guest so in many ways that was more stressful because I was holding the cheque book! On The Captured Bird, I was so well protected from that stuff. All I had to do was show up and be prepared and know what I want. I had a crew of 50 on that short – it looked like a feature and they really took care of me. So making a tiny movie for a sliver of the budget was in many ways much more difficult. What I’m learning is there’s never enough money – whether you’re making a 6000 dollar movie or a $60 million dollar movie.

HC: The Guest is existentialist horror at its best and stands up to repeated viewings, are you a big fan of this sub-genre?

JV: I don’t even know if it’s really recognized as a subgenre but I do love ambiguous stories about characters in existential crisis. Isolated physically, mentally, emotionally – or a combination of all three. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, Jacob’s Ladder, Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf, Kafka’s The Trial, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw are all superlative examples of existential horror. So yes I guess you could say I am a fan of those types of stories.

HC: Are you worried some people might not “get it” and are you nervous about it showing at FrightFest 2013?

JV: Not at all. People will bring their own experience to it and make their own determinations about the story. The same thing happened with The Captured Bird. Some people thought it was a metaphor for sexual abuse while others thought it was about fear of mothering and most saw it as a visual poem about the loss of innocence. How they responded to the film depended on their life experience. Interesting, isn’t it?

HC: What advice would you give to someone wanting to shoot their own short?

JV: I’m still new at this. I’ve only made three short films so I am not really in a position to be telling other people how to do it. But what I found helpful was surrounding myself with optimistic and inspiring people who knew what they were doing. That way I was the least experienced person in the bunch and I had plenty of people to ask for help.

HC: You’re a person of many talents; do you have a favourite job that you do?

JV: Yes. Unequivocally. It’s being a mother to my daughter.

HC: So what are you working on at the moment?

JV: This week I am traveling to Providence, Rhode Island to unveil the bronze bust of H.P. Lovecraft with my friend Bryan Moore on the 123rd anniversary of the author’s birthday. I’ve got a fun little pocket book coming out full of some of my favourite facts, trivia and lists called Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany. But I should say that I’m actually retiring completely from non-fiction writing so that I can focus on my creative endeavours and film work. I find it takes up too much time I could be doing the work I really enjoy. I’ve never felt more at home than when I first stepped on a film set. So that’s the direction I want to keep going in. I have a very exciting film project that just got green lit, it should be announced very shortly now. I’ll be associate producing, writing and directing the project and we’ve assembled a tremendously talented group of people for it. We can’t wait to tell you guys all about it!

JV: Jovanka Vuckovic, thank you very much.

HC: Thank you for the support, Horror Channel and FrightFest! Big love from Canada!

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