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Every year, the Sundance Film Festival generates Cinderella stories about unknown filmmakers and actors thrust into the glare of the spotlight by an ecstatic crowd. But although one audience member leapt to his feat after the late-night première of Lucky McKee’s The Woman, it wasn’t to shower McKee with praise. As a proliferation of blog posts and YouTube videos demonstrate, McKee was verbally attacked by an agitated, traumatized man who accused the film and its makers of being sick and depraved, excoriating Sundance for programming the film and calling for it to be banned. Suddenly, people who’d never seen McKee’s insinuatingly creepy May and had no idea he was a favorite of horror-film aficionados—a Master Of Horror, per the anthology series that placed him in company with luminaries like John Carpenter and Dario Argento—were talking about his movie, suggesting the best thing that outraged patron could have done to prevent The Woman from being seen was keep his mouth shut.
The Woman is clearly meant to rile audiences, what with its focus on a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) captured and held prisoner by an outwardly upstanding family man (Sean Bridgers) determined to civilize her by any means, no matter how brutal. Although viewers might not know it, and don’t need to, the Woman is a carryover from the 2009 movie Offspring, itself drawn from a series of Jack Ketchum books about a cannibalistic clan. With Ketchum’s approval and assistance for both the film script and its accompanying novel, McKee flipped the roles, making the Woman the most sympathetic character in a drama that plays to a violently bloody, thought-provoking conclusion. McKee recently talked to The A.V. Club about dealing with that Sundance patron, the influence of the 6 o’clock news, and why The Woman is his “fuck-you movie.”
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with Sundance. It’s safe to say that The Woman was made to provoke, but you probably didn’t want people calling for it to be banned. After that first screening, were you afraid you might have miscalculated?
Lucky McKee: No. It was the first time I had ever shown the film, so obviously I was really nervous about people misinterpreting my intention. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. It’s strange to make a film and have somebody say out loud that you had done something wrong by making it. [Laughs.] I put a lot of care into that movie. It’s not just a cheap piece of exploitation. There’s a lot of thought behind every single shot and every single moment in the film. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Some people can’t handle that sort of thing, and some people want to pretend that that sort of stuff doesn’t exist.
AVC: Was there some vindication in knowing you got under that guy’s skin?
LM: Yeah, it was crazy. This guy’s brain melted; you can see it in his eyes. Something broke in this guy’s head. He wasn’t prepared for it. I think maybe it was a local person who bought a pass to the festival and was like, “Oh, I’ll catch a film.” They don’t know who Jack Ketchum is. They just go in, and then all of a sudden they get this movie that has these really dark and bordering-on-absurd things happening, and they’re hearing people laugh when these things are happening on the screen. People are laughing out of discomfort; they aren’t laughing because they’re like, “Yeah! Go on and rape her!” That’s not what’s going on. I’ve experienced that on my previous films, where people don’t know what to do but laugh. They think, “What am I watching? This is not computing in my brain.” Some people enjoy it, but some people just can’t handle it.
AVC: It seems as if after Sundance, you mostly stuck to showing the film at horror festivals. Do you think that audience is more understanding of what you’re going for?
LM: Yeah. I know my audience. I designed it for audiences at Sitges or in London at FrightFest or Fantasia in Montreal. I know the types of crowds that watch my films; I know how they respond. I got into Sundance—what could I do? That was the first place I was going to present the film, give the film a chance at distribution, all that stuff. It’s great. On the flipside of that guy, I’ve got, like a 60-year-old lady in the audience who was like, “I don’t know what that movie was, but that was awesome!” [Laughs.] You get the flipside of that just as much. Moreso, actually, because an older audience watching the film is responding to a lot of the film techniques I’m using, from films they grew up on. I’m not borrowing technique from the last five years, I’m borrowing technique from the last 140 years, so someone’s like “Oh, it makes me feel like I felt when I saw a Hitchcock picture in 1960.” That’s one cool result; when you get the wrong audience in there and you bring a couple more over to your side, it’s pretty cool.
AVC: I was surprised to find out that the Woman was a character carried over from earlier Jack Ketchum novels, and the movie Offspring. The catalogue blurbs and press materials don’t mention that.
LM: Yeah, we wanted it to be looked at as its own film.
AVC: The beginning of The Woman plays differently if you have some idea how she ended up in the woods, rather than simply having this hunter happen upon a naked, feral woman—although there’s a great sense of dislocation to presenting it that way.
LM: I had people giving me their interpretations of what is going on, and they’d be like, “Is that what’s going on?” And I’d be like, “I can’t say, but that’s great. You can look at it that way.” This woman’s been raised by wolves—there’s all this cool stuff that they’re creating in their own minds because the movie’s not spoon-feeding them; it’s not a disposable film. It’s something people can actually have a conversation about after they’ve seen it, because they haven’t been told everything. They haven’t been told how to feel.
AVC: It’s not like she’s going to suddenly learn to talk and tell them where she came from.
LM: Yeah, I know. The exposition happens in more ways than just dialogue in this film. There’s lots of exposition, but it’s not all talking.
AVC: It’s hard to think of another example where a director has taken a previously extant character and, with the help and consent of the original author, moved her in a completely different direction.
LM: Yeah, that was the whole point. The previous story was, a clan of cannibals attacks this suburban home and terrorizes this family and everyone gets killed, kind of a Hills Have Eyes sort of thing. I told Ketchum, I told the producers, “If you want me to do this thing, you have to let me completely go in my own direction and make my kind of film.” The first thing I told them was that I wanted to take this villain from the previous story and make her the victim and ultimately the hero in the second one. They were really excited with that idea and that change of direction; it was fresh to them. It was a really fun process putting it all together. And by doing a sequel to a straight-to-video horror film that was pretty much universally panned by even the hardcore horror fans, when it was announced that I was making this thing, it completely pushed me that much farther off the radar. It was like, “Really? Poor Lucky is doing this straight-to-video little movie?” It worked in my advantage. And then all in a sudden it popped up at Sundance and starts popping up at these festivals, and people are like, “What? Where did this come from?” It worked really well.
AVC: It didn’t end up being your Cabin Fever 2.
LM: [Laughs.] Oh, Ti [West]. Poor Ti.
AVC: He’s doing better now.
LM: Yeah. You gotta get knocked on your ass a couple times before you really start doing your good work.
AVC: Since you mention it—
LM: Which time of me getting knocked on my ass did you want to discuss? [Laughs.]
AVC: I was thinking of Red. How much do you feel that the movie as it stands now belongs to you? And what did you take away from that experience?
LM: I lay no claim to that. I developed the thing for several years and put it all together and directed half of it and got removed from the production. We disagreed on the proper way to make the film. It’s my fault just as much as anybody’s. It’s putting people on your team that your gut tells you, “This could go bad at some point.” You gotta listen to your gut. It was just the wrong combination of people. It was unfortunate for all of us involved in the project. If I hadn’t had that experience—I really thought Red was going to be a big film for me. The timing was good on it. I had a great cast and all that stuff. To have that taken away from me, it really put me in a situation where I was like, “I don’t know if I really want to direct films anymore.” But it’s how I got the opportunity to do The Woman, and it made me that much stronger. I got this circle around me, and you don’t cross this line. You gotta let me do my job. So there’s a bit of anger. The Woman, in a lot of ways, is a bit of a fuck-you movie. It’s like, “Okay, if you want a horror movie, here we go. I’m going to make the monsters the people that look like you and me, because that’s what I’ve seen in the world.”
AVC: “Uncompromising” is a fair adjective to apply to The Woman. The idea of flip-flopping the hero and the villain, insinuating that the feral cannibals and so-called civilized people are no different in their sadism—in a way, that goes back to May, where the protagonist isn’t who you’d think it would be.
LM: Yeah, you wouldn’t think that you could have that much sympathy for someone like that. But you talk about sadism—the Woman is not sadistic at all. She is what she is. She comes from her world, and she’s closer to what we all came from, our animal selves. She’s pure. She’s honest. Yes, she’ll bite your fuckin’ finger off, but that’s what she does. She’s a survivor. Cleek, he’s a family man, he’s civilized, well to-do, well-spoken, well-groomed—a shaved ape. But there’s this rot underneath all of that that’s really, really disturbing in someone who believes in the fallacy that we can control things.
AVC: Does that square with your own views of civilization in general?
LM: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely.
AVC: Where does that come from?
LM: Watch the 6 o’clock news. Watch how people treat each other in life. Everybody’s seeing a little bit of all the things that are going on in The Woman in varying degrees. Everybody’s had abuse in their family, or known somebody who’s been abused. All this, obviously, is compacted into a movie for drama’s sake, but there’s not behavior in this film that doesn’t exist, or is not happening right now as we speak. I don’t just come up with this stuff, I see it.
AVC: But other people watch the 6 o’clock news, and rightly or wrongly, come away with very different conclusions.
LM: The first thing on the local 6 o’clock news in my hometown, and I’m sure it’s like that everywhere else—“A man accused of molesting his 6-year-old son just got out of jail after six months,” and then “Oh! There was a puppy fair down the street.” They change direction so quick. And then you’re watching a deodorant commercial or a Viagra commercial. What is that doing to our brains? The Woman is the awful 6 o’clock news lead story, but you’ve got to live with these people. You’ve got to go behind those closed doors.
AVC: In a sense, the 6 o’clock news itself is more disturbing than anything it reports.
LM: Yeah. Just look at this Michael Jackson court case and all the stuff that’s going on with that. All the stuff that’s being exposed about his kids, what his kids thought, how his kids reacted when their fucking dad died. No one has a right to know that stuff.
AVC: There was recently a teaser for a news report where the tag was, “Some news out of the Michael Jackson trial today—his children ran out of the room when he was dying.” That’s not news, by almost any definition.
LM: Yeah, it’s fucking terrible. It’s extremely private and personal. But again, they’re selling fucking Viagra, they’re selling fucking tampons, they’re selling fucking Audis. It really disturbs me. I watch Diane Sawyer on the news every night, and I like Diane Sawyer, but every once in a while you’re like, “How can that person sleep at night? Stop saying that stuff.” I know that they’re just a filter for the corporation they work for, and they’re doing their job and everything, but I couldn’t do that. I’ll work at McDonald’s and have a clean conscience.
AVC: Culture, both within the media and in a larger sense, plays a naturalizing role, so something that’s inherently bizarre no longer seems so.
LM: Yeah, it’s really strange, man. It upsets me. That’s why I watch the news. I like to see what people are being fed. [Laughs.] It’s very interesting to me. It’s like watching a fucking circus every night.
AVC: You mentioned Mr. Cleek. What inspired that character, and how did you want him to be distinct? The crazy horror-movie patriarch has been done to death.
LM: I wanted to avoid the twirling mustache. What I wanted to avoid was the obvious villain or the hillbilly villain. A lot of these films, the people live in rural areas and have no teeth and no education and all this shit. I made him as much the opposite of Pollyanna’s character as I possibly could. That’s where you get the drama.
AVC: There are echoes of The Stepfather as well, this normal, even boring man who turns out to be incredibly twisted.
LM: All that comes from Shadow Of A Doubt, the Hitchcock film. The Joseph Cotten character, that was a huge reference point. Yeah, that guy slaps his wife, but he’s not going to lose any sleep over it; he just slaps her, spits out his toothpaste, and gets in bed. That’s just the way things are. It’s casual. That’s scary to me: someone who’s so casual with their control over people and the violence they hang over people like an umbrella.
AVC: You’ve said you saw the son as the scariest character, because he’s purely amoral, someone who’s raised to find the things his father does totally natural.
LM: Yeah. He’s being encouraged to do it, to be more evil. That’s why when you get to some of these festivals and the kid goes down at the end, people are cheering. It’s a fucking kid dying. But he is evil.
AVC: I’m always cheered when a horror filmmaker breaks the rule about not killing children or pets.
LM: Yeah, Hitchcock claimed he messed up in Sabotage when he killed the kid, but that makes the movie brilliant.
AVC: The proscription against killing animals is so bizarre. Plenty of innocent people get gunned down in Summer Of Sam, but they have to throw in a shot at the end showing his dog is still alive. It’s like, “Sure, he’s a serial killer, but he wouldn’t kill a dog.”
LM: I know. When I was screening May around the world, she kills six people in the movie, and that didn’t bother anybody, but when she kills her cat, people were running out of the theater. Very interesting. I think people have a lot more sympathy for animals. I think that’s why people have such sympathy for Pollyanna’s character, because she is our animal self.
AVC: Without giving the ending away, one of the things that’s most fascinating about The Woman is that we spend most of the movie thinking this is an otherwise innocent family that’s been corrupted by this repressive, terrifying father figure, and that eventually turns out not to be the case.
LM: Yeah, this has been going on their whole lives, and it’s not this specific situation. That was part of the fun. That’s part of what fucks with people’s emotions, like, “Why aren’t the kids saying anything when they go to school? Why isn’t the wife saying anything? And why is the dad just letting her walk around in the world free when they have this horrible secret?” And then you don’t find that out until the end.
AVC: What, other than “fucking with people’s emotions,” appealed to you about that?
LM: Tremendous suspense comes from it, like a nightmare. When the father reveals the Woman to the family for the first time and you get that really subdued reaction from everybody, that’s when people start laughing. They’re like, “What the fuck is happening?” But when you get to the end, you give people the correct information, and it makes them think back on everything they saw. Hopefully it makes them want to go back and watch some of what they saw a second time. All the clues are there, but they’re not in the traditional formula.
AVC: It also explains how Cleek eases into this situation so quickly, as if once you find a feral woman, locking her up in your fruit cellar is the next logical step.
LM: Yeah, it’s just another one of dad’s projects. Sort of casual. That was so fun.
AVC: At the very least, the movie makes you look up the word “anophthalmia” after the fact.
LM: Yeah, exactly. If a kid has to go look up something in the dictionary, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it?
AVC: We talked about you going to horror-film festivals. It’s interesting that it’s such a discrete world. There aren’t festivals that focus on just romantic comedies or period pieces, or filmmakers who identify themselves as such.
LM: That’s true. I don’t know why that is. Horror movies are the modern equivalent of fairy tales, and they get a childlike response from people. I think people like to get lost in the feeling again, because the world can make you forget what that feels like to be afraid, or just sit in the dark and hear a spooky story. We all need that.
AVC: Is there a danger of being too absorbed in that world, or playing to that crowd, where inevitably people will get desensitized to things and much more get involved in the mechanics? Then we end up with the Final Destination movies, which are about the mechanics of how people get killed.
LM: Yeah, what’s the setpiece? How can we kill somebody in the most spectacular way? I don’t know. I think people know it’s cartoons. It’s like Road Runner and Coyote smashing each other and doing all that stuff. So when they watch Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is almost a completely bloodless film, they’re fucking terrified, because they know that that’s all possible.
AVC: One of the things that is really striking in Chain Saw—and this goes for the first three Night Of The Living Dead movies as well—is there’s a real emphasis on the solidity of flesh. When Leatherface hangs a woman on a hook, you feel the weight and the impact of it. Without giving too much away, The Woman certainly underlines the fact that, at the most basic level, we’re all made of meat.
LM: Yeah, savagery. But only at specific points. It’s not shoving your face with effects. There are only certain techniques. You can only rip off somebody’s arm or chew off somebody’s face so much before it starts to have no impact. You have to get people emotionally involved in these characters.
AVC: How did those kinds of calculations differ when you were co-writing the novel? Some things work better onscreen, some better in print.
LM: Oh, yeah. If you read the book, it’s much more graphic. In a film, a little goes a long way, in my opinion. There’s definitely a difference in terms of how far I would go graphically, but that’s just personal taste. They are definitely different mediums. The imagination’s very dangerous. I have sequences in the film where it’s done in a montage sort of way, so you don’t know what’s going on, particularly what the boy does to the woman in the cellar. We don’t really see it. You just see these strange images that are put together in the correct way, and the stuff that people tell you they imagine the boy is doing is way worse that anything that actually happens in the film. I mean, stuff I wouldn’t even want to repeat.
AVC: The classic example is how many people are convinced they see Janet Leigh getting stabbed in Psycho, when that’s never actually shown.
LM: Yeah and Texas Chain Saw operates the same way. I steal liberally from those films.
AVC: You talked about wanting to confront the horror audience with this film. How does that work?
LM: I don’t watch horror films all day every day. I don’t have horror imagery up in my house, and all these figurines and body parts lying around the house. I just live in a house in the woods. We’ve got a lot of books and DVDs lying around, but I don’t live in that world every day. If I can challenge that audience and make them uncomfortable, then that’s the fun challenge. That’s just fun to me. And it’s been working, showing the thing at genre festivals and making those people uncomfortable. That’s a good trick, because those people are pretty desensitized to all this stuff. I have kids come up to me all the time at horror conventions and talk to me about like, “Oh man, did you see that movie where that guy got ripped in half?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, but I didn’t think it was cool. I thought it was fucked-up and scary, and I was also wondering, ‘Why are they doing this? What’s the point? Where are the characters? Where is the story?’”
When you’re just doing it for just the gore’s sake, then it becomes like pornography. That’s where I think the term torture-porn came from. I think some films are incorrectly labeled torture-porn—like Hostel is not torture-porn to me. Hostel has a really good story. It’s got intrigue, it’s got suspense. Yeah, it’s got graphic stuff, but that’s what it calls for, not pornography.
AVC: The Final Destination and Saw series really crystallized that formula: People on YouTube have actually edited them down to a nonstop series of kills, which is essentially what they are anyway.
LM: Try going to the meeting and pitching one of those things. I had to go the meeting and start talking about story and character and the underlying meaning of the thing, and they were like, “Uh…” They just waved their hands and were like, “Just tell me what the kills are.” When I was starting out, I pitched all sorts of stuff at the studios, and they didn’t want to hear about theme or character. They just wanted to know how you were going to gross people out, and how you are going to make them jump. I don’t make roller coasters. I make movies.
AVC: There’s a mechanical, even rote quality to the deaths that borders on obscene.
LM: Right, you might as well put buzzers in the seats. It’s a totally different thing than pulling someone into the story, and they forget.
AVC: So how do you get under the skin of an audience who’s used to seeing people dismembered on screen?
LM: The first thing we talked about was, we built people. We built who they were, the correct sort of people who gave us the most suspense and the most drama for that initial idea we had. Character is where we start, always. I’m not really a plot-oriented guy. I just observe people with the camera and get inside their eyes and their ears and make people feel like they’re watching people they can relate to in some way, whether they like it or not.
AVC: And then you turn the whole thing on its head at the very end. I don’t think anyone sees that coming.
LM: It designed to be a monkey wrench. I’m not ruining anything by saying the Woman’s chained up, but she will get out at some point in the movie, and she will fuck shit up. So I created a monkey wrench that I totally set up beforehand. That surprise is indicated in the first five minutes of the film, and continuously indicated throughout the film. It’s done with something other than dialogue, and I wasn’t showing you. It’s in the sound.
AVC: You suggest that the family is keeping a large, ferociously hungry hog in their barn.
LM: Yeah! That would have been awesome. It totally should have been a big, wild, frothing pig. But horror is about disorientation; that’s another way to scare people and make them think, “Oh my God, I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” If you do enough things early on in the film that indicate that you’ll go there, once you get to right before the final sequence, and the teacher comes over, and what happens with her happens and the screen goes black, the audience knows, “Oh, shit. This is going to get really, really”—and you can hear it in the audience, because every time I’ve shown the film, every time the screen goes black at that point in the story, everybody goes, “Oh no,” collectively in the audience. It’s so cool, like music.
AVC: Is must be especially great for you to hear the audience react that way, since you orchestrated it yourself.
LM: Oh yeah—so, so, so satisfying. It’s why we do this stuff.
AVC: What are you working on right now?
LM: I’m writing. I have to go on to a new direction. The Woman is the darkest thing I’ve made, and probably the darkest thing I will want to make in a while. Like I said, there’s a big layer of “fuck you” underneath the movie, because I had a lot of anger, and I wanted to make something really confrontational for myself and to make a film that people couldn’t ignore. Now that it’s got their attention, they’ll be happy to let me take them on different rides. I promise I won’t traumatize them every time I make a movie. From now on, I’ll try to make them laugh and cry a little bit too.