Katie Aselton interview: Black Rock, women in horror

A chat with writer, director, and actress Katie Aselton about her new film, Black Rock...

It’s amazing that anyone wants to go camping any more. The horror genre has taken great pains to explain exactly why it’s a bad idea, so when the three childhood friends in Black Rock set off to a remote island to rediscover their friendship, you just know everything’s going to go horribly wrong.

Katie Aselton’s film manages to pack in most of the requisite survival horror beats while maintaining its own defiantly realistic atmosphere; there aren’t any monsters here, just a group of people failing catastrophically to understand one another. It’s an interesting change of direction for the mumblecore star, so ahead of Black Rock’s UK release, we grabbed her for a chat about the film…

You co-wrote, directed, and starred in Black Rock, so it must be a very personal movie. What was it about this story that you wanted to tell?

I really loved exploring the theme of loyalty and how ferocious one can be when protecting people they love. I think every character has that; the women certainly have that, the men also have that, and it was something that, once we started to scratch the surface, I realised was so much a part of who I am, as a mother, a wife, a friend, a family member…

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It’s just this ferocious sense of loyalty, and I think once you grapple with that and realise what you would be capable of doing for the people you love, it’s one of the most terrifying things to realise about yourself. That you could potentially kill someone for someone that you love. So that’s the strongest pull in the story for me.

It’s a pretty simple story at heart, with a lot of focus on the female characters in the first half. Are the characters the most important thing about a film like this?

Absolutely. It was really important for me to make this a character-driven film, and less gimmicky than I think modern day horror thrillers are now. I wanted to get back to the classic thriller, like Deliverance, that has very strong characters and very simple plot. I think it’s the most relatable type of story to tell for an audience.

The violence feels very real, especially towards the end, and it’s not glamorised.

No, it’s certainly not glamorised!

You also have a lengthy nude scene that’s, also, totally unglamorous. Was that a reaction against more sensationalised horror?

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Absolutely. It was a direct nod to that tenet of the horror/thriller genre, that women are gonna show their boobs, and it was definitely a direct nod, like “yes, I will bow to your needs”, but at the same time I will do it on my terms, and make it, you know, a necessity to survive rather than a gratuitous sexual moment.

It doesn’t really feel like a lot of modern horror. It feels almost like a throwback… You mentioned Deliverance earlier, can you tell me a bit more about that comparison?

It really was just the simplicity of that story. What I loved so much about it is that it’s a scenario you can see yourself in. I have a very hard time picturing myself in a room with some type of goo oozing out of an air vent and killing me; that doesn’t really scare me because I don’t think that’s going to happen to me. But a situation that goes horribly wrong because of a stupid miscommunication and then things escalate very quickly in a very realistic way… that is terrifying to me because that could happen. I really loved the simplicity of that story and I wanted to hold on to something like that for my film as well.

Making the main characters all women feels pretty ballsy in itself. Why did you make that decision?

I’m really sick of the trend of women, right now, who are apologising for being beautiful and smart, and they sort of hunch their shoulders… I call it the mouthy librarian trend. It’s just – you know, they’re so dorky and they’re sorry they’re so cute, they’re trying to cover it up.

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I really want women to throw their shoulders back and stand up straight and use their big girl voices and not feel like they’re compromising their femininity to be strong and smart. I think that makes women sexier. I think it makes them more interesting, and I am sick of these high pitched Kardashian-like role models for girls. I think the idea that women can stand up and be strong and still be seen as beautiful and sexual is kind of cool and I would like to see more of that.

There aren’t many female horror directors, either…

I know, it’s weird, right? I don’t know why.

Why did you want to make a movie in this genre?

Honestly, I approached it mostly as an actor, and the role of Abby was one that I’d never been offered before. Up until this point, I’ve only done very emotional relationship-y/funny comedic roles, and I was dying – I had this secret urge to be in like a Jason Bourne movie, or I would like to be a Bond girl, but they die! I want to be James Bond!

So I really wanted to create something for myself where I get to be very physical and do something completely out of my wheelhouse, at the opposite end of the spectrum, so that was how it started, and when we started thinking about bringing on a director I had fallen in love with the story so much I didn’t want anyone else to tell it. And I loved the idea of a woman telling this story.

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Was it a very different process from making The Freebie?

Oh my God, it was as different as you could get! The Freebie was all interior shots in a small house and this very familiar type of atmosphere and it was warm and cosy and everyone was talking about their feelings. In Black Rock we were just all outside and freezing and wet and running for our lives covered in fake blood.

Is it emotionally exhausting, too? Most of the film is very tense, is that arduous to shoot?

Honestly, it was challenging all through post-production as well. I totally fell in love with Lake [Bell] and Kate [Bosworth], we became amazingly close friends and to sit there for months on end watching the footage of them running for their lives and getting beaten and hurt – it was just an emotional wring. By the end of it, I was like “ugh, I’ve got nothing left.”

You raised $33,000 on Kickstarter for this movie. Why did you decide to (partially) fund your movie that way?

Well, Mark [Duplass] and I paid for the movie – the entire budget was out of our pocket – and we had budgeted a certain amount for a camera, which was a lower level camera. And we started doing camera tests, and we happened to also test the ARRI Alexa, which at the time was the newest thing and, I mean, they shoot massive movies on that camera, and it looks beautiful. It’s a digital camera, it shoots incredibly in low light situations.

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And also – this is going to get techie and dorky for a minute, I’m sorry – but when you’re shooting digitally, you tend to get issues with vertical lines where they tend to like, wiggle a little if you’re moving the camera at all. And if you think about what most of our frames are, it’s all these really tall trees, and people running! So we were having issues, but we were totally tapped out, our budget was as high as we could possibly go, so we thought, let’s try Kickstarter.

I think Kickstarter, when used in the right way, is an amazing way for people to get involved and for fans to feel like they’re a part of something from the ground up. I don’t really love where Kickstarter is going now. I think it’s totally bullshit that studios are using Kickstarter – like, the Veronica Mars thing? But I think for something like this, we were able to up our ante a little bit and make the movie better because we did some crowdsourcing, and I think the rewards are critical too, I think it’s really fun that people can get a little piece of something before the film comes out.

I mean, could we have shot the movie on the other camera? Yeah, totally, so if we didn’t make it [to our Kickstarter goal], it would’ve been fine. But it wouldn’t have looked nearly as nice as it did.

Going back to your triple role in this movie – why did you want to do all of those things? What’s it like starring and directing something? Does it help, because you know what you want, or does it just mean you have twice as much work to do?

It was easier and harder. You’re so invested, and as an actor, a lot of times you come on right before a project starts so you don’t have time to sit with your character and really think about the story and the dynamics and I had been thinking about this character and this story and the dynamics for quite some time, so I felt very comfortable with who Abby was.

And then, as far as directing goes, it just takes more planning. It’s all leading up to when the camera starts rolling, because once the camera starts rolling, you have to be able to lock away. So you have long discussions with your DP and storyboarding and make sure you have eyes that you trust, behind the camera, to capture your vision.

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You work a lot with your husband, Mark Duplass, who also has a writing and producing credit on this movie. What’s it like working with him?

It’s great! I find him, you know, incredibly talented and very good at what he does, so it’s very nice to have someone like that around when, you know, you have half a concussion from a stunt gone wrong and you need to see if everything is working. It was really helpful emotionally and professionally to have his creative voice around when I needed him.

Finally, what are you working on next?

I’m not sure! I have a couple different things that I’m playing around with and I’m not sure what the first one up will be.

Katie Aselton, thank you very much!

Black Rock is out today.

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