Since his first film, May, made its auspicious debut at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Lucky McKee has produced a fascinating and varied filmography that ranges from the Cronenbergian body horror of Sick Girl, his contribution to the Masters of Horror anthology series, to The Woods, an old-school throwback a la Ti West’s House of the Devil, and Red, his ill-fated first attempt at adapting of a Jack Ketchum novel, whose direction was taken out of his hands at the 11th hour. Something of a horror switch-hitter, McKee seems equally at ease with Splat Pack-style extreme gore as he is with more subtle psychological horror. His latest and, quite possibly, most divisive film, The Woman, was co-written with Ketchum. Playing the more permissive European festival scene, the film has picked up awards and laudatory reviews in far-flung locales like Strasbourg, Lund, and Sitges, though its premiere at the 2011 Sundance was a somewhat different matter, as can be gauged from one viewer’s irate response in this YouTube clip. Fresh off his visit to Sitges, where The Woman nabbed an award for Best Screenplay, Slant had the opportunity to discuss his decade-long career, as well as his latest film, with the writer-director.
Tell us a little about your formative experiences with the horror genre in film and literature.
I guess the first horror film I remember seeing was Jaws at age two at a drive-in. Freaked me out. Our family watched The Wizard of Oz every year too, and that witch and those monkeys were nightmare material. I think I really got hooked when I was about eight or nine and we rented a VCR and a bunch of horror flicks for my sister’s birthday. It was me, my sister, and a few cousins, all girls, watching these things late at night in a dark house in the middle of nowhere. Good times. The first horror book I remember reading was Frankenstein when I was in fourth grade. I think the influence there is quite apparent.
With one exception, all your films, up to and including The Woman, have involved Angela Bettis in some capacity. What’s your collaboration process like?
Effortless and enlightening.
Roman introduced a Freaky Friday variable into the equation, swapping actor and director roles. How was that experience?
It taught me a lot about what I ask my actors to do for me when I make a film. It was an invaluable learning experience as a director to take on a lead role and have the goods in front of the camera. Angela held my hand. Big time.
Your involvement with the Masters of Horror series raised a few eyebrows, given your relative newcomer status at the time. All the same, Sick Girl was one of the more successful, provocative episodes. What was your experience in being asked to participate? How did you approach material you hadn’t written?
I was probably more shocked than anyone. It was a fantastic experience and a big honor to be in the company of so many of my cinema idols. Mick Garris just hit me up one day and told me the basic parameters of the show, which were very few in the first season. He gave me three scripts to choose from and I chose Sean Hood’s. I was allowed to take the material anywhere I wanted to as long as my episode came in at no more than an hour. I had the same freedom as all the other veterans. We had pure fun on that one. Lots of laughs and lots of skill-honing.
The Woman culminates a longstanding relationship with the works of Jack Ketchum. With your latest, you worked together closely on both the film and novel versions. Walk us through that process. What are your thoughts on the differences between horror on the silver screen and the printed page?
Movies deal with sight and sound and, sometimes, thought. Books give you thought and all five senses. In a movie a little goes a long way in terms of how overt or graphic you need to be. In a book it’s all about filling the imagination with as much detail as possible. Both forms are my preferred forms of storytelling, with cinema having the slight edge, just because that’s what I’ve devoted my life to. The process with Ketchum was pretty damn easy. There are no egos between us and we both want to poke around in areas that a lot of people don’t. We try to be as honest as possible within a given situation and work well together because we think pulling punches is for pussies. That being said, we work very hard to give every beat or action in a story a genuine and valid purpose.
The Woman’s premiere at Sundance earlier this year certainly kicked up a bit of a ruckus. One outraged viewer’s rant even wound up making a splash on the Internet. Since then, the film’s gone on to rack up awards at major European festivals. How do you handle the peaks and troughs of the festival scene?
It’s been a blast. I’ve had movies that people walk out of, but The Woman is the first one that forces some people to run out of the theater. It’s pretty neat that pictures and sounds in a designed succession can have that effect. My films often find more love outside the U.S. than the other way around. I find this strange, because I feel like there is a distinct American sensibility in my work. Maybe it’s just because I’m not following trends that have been established in the last five years, but studying technique that has been developed over the last 120 years. There is an old-fashioned element to my camera and editing style, I suppose.
The Woman succeeds admirably as a twisted satire on conservative “family values,” as well as the concept of domestication, in several senses of that word. Do I detect a whiff of irony in the “alternative family” that emerges at the end of the film?
I don’t know. Do you?