by Shane Lange:
Groundbreaking work has a tendency to appear as if by magic: it arrives without fanfare and catches the viewer completely off guard by its wholly unfamiliar yet somehow consistent, self-contained vision. When director Lindsay Denniberg’s Video Diary of a Lost Girl quietly slipped over the digital transom at DarkMedia in October of 2012, it was clear that the film possessed a unique voice and vision, and, while it garnered several awards on the genre festival circuit last year (and was reviewed by yours truly in December), the film has only recently begun to receive industry recognition from media heavyweights like Fangoria and Rue Morgue Magazine. As a low-budget debut feature VDLG probably won’t be receiving an Oscar nomination, but the story of its creation, the director’s passion for B-movies and her determined, independent approach to filmmaking is an inspiring addition to DarkMedia’s recognition of Women in Horror.
Video Diary of a Lost Girl is the story of Louise (Priscilla McEver), a reluctant member of a vampire-like race of succubi known as the Lilin, descendants of Adam’s first wife, Lilith. When she discovers that her former lover and first victim Charlie (Chris Shields) has come back to life, Louise struggles to come to terms with her demonic nature and the threat it poses to their relationship. The film is equal parts horror and romantic comedy, inspired by 80s-era B movies and taking its visual cues from German Expressionism, video art, and the cult film Liquid Sky.
The story and tone evolved organically, in response to Denniberg’s changing interests and personal experiences as a student. She says, “When I started writing the script back in undergrad, the first idea of it was to be a very dark, serious movie.” During the course of development, her co-writer and the film’s male lead Chris Shields introduced Denniberg to the horror-comedy Rockula, “which I’d never seen, so I watched it and was like, Oh! I want my movie to be like this, this is so much fun!” Shortly thereafter she discovered My Demon Lover, in which sexual arousal is the catalyst for a character’s Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation from human to demon, a process with which she says she can relate. “With the origins of the [Video Diary] script itself, it definitely came from a personal place because I have trouble dating men, I just have intimacy issues. I get scared and I feel like I can’t be around them because I’ll hurt them, being who I am. Those are issues – instead of dealing with them productively, I just make a movie instead and continue to be single!”
Central to the film is its exploration of feminist themes. It challenges accepted normative ideas of female sexuality and was aptly described in a recent review as, “stick[ing] a fork in the stereotypical male gaze.” However Denniberg is quick to note that, while her academic background provided a foundation in feminist theory, Video Diary’s protagonist accurately reflects Denniberg’s point of view:
“Something one of my advisors [at School of the Arts Institute of Chicago] mentioned to me, I believe it was Mary Patton…the feminism in my movie is struggling with this feminist movement going on behind Lilith, and all of these ideas about the other Lilin, kind of living the Lilin lifestyle. Louise has been burdened with these feminist ideas that she just doesn’t relate with, like the man-hating or whatever – which I don’t relate with either, I don’t understand it, even though I have a fear of a certain type of men who would try to chase me down an alleyway, I don’t want to be a man-hater and I don’t think that’s wise. There’s just as much conflict within feminism between the feminists themselves as there is with the feminists – and I am a feminist, but I am my own feminist. I have my own ideas about it and I feel like a lot of that came out with Louise, like you have this burden of what other people within your group think you should be, and you’re not that. That’s a problem with any “ism” – it can be a cult mentality if you let it get radical.”
Her philosophy also extends to the production side of filmmaking. Whether learned by her internship editing and promoting for the stalwart independent B-movie studio Troma Films (The Toxic Avenger!) or by natural inclination, every aspect of Denniberg’s approach is innovative, resourceful, and entirely hands-on. She says, “The way I’ve been promoting right now, which has been really successful, I learned through Troma by promoting for Lloyd (Kaufman, head of Troma Films).” And, although greenscreen filming factors prominently in Video Diary’s aesthetic, she notes that “I had never done greenscreen before. So I was afraid, of course, but on all of my previous short films I had thought, well I’ve never done this before so why not try it? So I decided to stop being scared and give it a shot.” The art and set design for the production was essentially salvaged from surplus or discarded supplies at the school. “I had to gather everything up, big rolls of paper and cardboard, and paint everywhere. …each miniature set cost between I would say only 20 to 50 dollars to make, just from all the materials I’d find.” “The whole production budget was about $5000, the majority of that was my own saved money and then $1500 was from Indiegogo.” (Denniberg says she opted for a small crowdfunding goal because she had seen other projects fail to meet larger targets.) “Most of the budget went to my lead actors and getting them over from New York to Chicago, and paying for food and transportation when people were shooting.”
The world Louise inhabits in Video Diary, says Denniberg, is “glazed in neon”, an aesthetic choice influenced by the director’s love of Slava Tsukerman’s New Wave dystopia, Liquid Sky. She explains, “Basically with every movie I’ve made there’s a cluster of movies I get obsessed with that I watch over and over before I make them. One of my older movies, Wet Skin, which is like a horror adaptation of The Little Mermaid, I would watch a lot of Guy Maddin movies and George Kuchar, and Carolee Schneemann, and then for the other movie I did, Chances, that was much more Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and Daisies, and things like that, so Once I got to Video Diary, the script just seemed to be very dark in my head, something always just clicks and then I saw Liquid Sky, and I just started thinking about it more and more, I loved the neon colours there.”
Denniberg’s love of B movies is evident in every aspect of the film. From the set design and decoration to the development of both character and story, there are countless cues and references for viewers well-versed in the genre. Highlights include: the Beetlejuice-like set design of Louise’s workplace; the karate training montage in a cemetery (Denniberg confesses, “I made that for me!”), Priscilla McEver’s simultaneous channeling of vaudeville actors and 80s-era Winona Ryder; and secondary characters assuming buddy-movie roles as Louise’s confidantes and inquisitors.
Similar to her identification with sympathetic monsters is Denniberg’s championing of the underdog. In the film, Louise is a reluctant predator and an outcast among her clan, a feeling that Denniberg herself has expressed in her autobiographical short film Playing Dead. She says Frankenstein’s monster is her favourite horror creature:
“I love sympathy for the monster. After I saw Edward Scissorhands my mom told me, ‘Oh that’s like the Frankenstein character,’ so I got obsessed with Frankenstein. He’s my favourite universal monster, and doesn’t get as much attention as Dracula – Dracula rules and everything, but Frankenstein is someone who I relate to very much and there are all of these female characters – especially Lilith I don’t think is represented in any interesting way very much, although there is a new film called Go In the Wilderness, filmed in Canada, and it looks like that’s a Lilith movie. Other films I’ve seen with her just make her demonic and kind of boring to me – the evil succubus to get men – and any positive forms of Lilith have been explored in a Lilith-Fair-Sarah-McLaughlan-esque way, which I have no problem with, but that’s just not where I’m coming from.”
Given the positive response to the film’s aesthetic, one wonders where Denniberg is headed. She says her next project is called Eye of Medusa and draws on a number of influences, but that the titular character will be present as an abstract. “I have a bunch of different ideas, basically it’s become a pot of, what are the things I like and that I want to try to put a different spin on? And then try to force them all to work together. Even though it’s called Eye of Medusa, Medusa doesn’t have much of a role in it; it’s more like her eyeball has powers. Frankenstein [elements] will be there, Wizard of Oz structure, and also The Odyssey, having all of those story elements swimming around and represented through something like (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s) Holy Mountain but even darker – like having a black soundstage with alien characters passing around an eyeball. I’m trying to figure out how all of that could work together.”
Considering Video Diary’s complex conceptual blend of elements and Denniberg’s trademark combination of meticulous craft with wild experimentation, the results will certainly be worth the wait. In the meantime, watch for updates via her Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/VideoDiaryOfALostGirl
This interview is part of DarkMedia’s official Women in Horror Recognition Month coverage! Stay tuned for more interviews, articles, and special features, right here on DarkMedia.com.