‘I took friends to the woods or docks, then asked if they thought I would make a good murderer’
In I Blame Society, Gillian Wallace Horvat sets out to make a film about the perfect murder
Gillian Wallace Horvat: ‘There’s a stigma that prevents so many women from becoming film-makers’
It’s not entirely unreasonable to suggest that the American Ninja series is the ne plus ultra of 1980s films. A product of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s Cannon Films – the imprint behind Cobra, Runaway Train and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo – the Ninja series features the B-movie legend Michael Dudikoff as a US army conscript who takes on the Black Star Order of ninjas while stationed in the Philippines.
Few film scholars have taken the time to consider American Ninja’s parallels with the incoming Iran-Contra scandal, or indeed the film’s strange reckoning with the US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was still in power during production.
Happily, Gillian Wallace Horvat is not most film scholars. As a cinema historian and producer, Wallace Horvat has, to date, pondered the feminist status of Johnny Guitar, the representation of Native Americans in Rio Grande, the internal dilemmas of Cary Grant, and Orson Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations. She has chronicled Peter Bogdanovich’s thoughts on John Ford, Ally Sheedy’s fanship of Maureen O’Hara, and Joseph McBride’s fascinating insights into Frank Capra’s work as a second World War propagandist.
For some people, men just look better on a set. They look like they belong there. They fill out the pants better
“A lot of my work is intended for Blu-rays and classic reissues,” says Wallace Horvat, a lively and learned presence, on a Zoom call from the United States. “It’s a way of contextualising films and talking about the history and catching up with any surviving cast members and directors. I studied film production at NYU, and then I got my master’s in cinema studies in UCLA, so making that kind of content requires every skill that I have. It’s research and archives and fact-checking and adhering to a shooting schedule and creating a film product out of that material that tells a story to the audience about the making of the film.
“I’m really proud of the work that I have done on the American Ninja boxset, because it involved creating a political background for those films that I don’t think people knew about. So it doesn’t matter if I’m working on a commercial release or one of the more prestigious releases. I can always get something out of it.”
Wallace Horvat’s career began with the short film Gunplay, a Haig P Manoogian Screenings semi-finalist that screened at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles in 2007. As a producer and archivist, she collaborated with Samantha and Christa Fuller and the Fuller estate on A Fuller Life, a 2013 feature-length documentary portrait of Sam Fuller, the iconoclastic director of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Though she has subsequently amassed some 64 credits as a director and a producer, it has taken seven years for a second feature-length project.
I Blame Society, a gleefully deranged satire that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, filmmaking and psychopathy, premiered to much acclaim in February at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. “A truly inspiring example of committing to the bit,” wrote Jessica Kiang in Variety. “The eventual twists might shock, but Horvat lands it all with a bruiser of an ending, as funny and scary as anything Hollywood itself has churned out in recent years,” Kate Erbland wrote on Indiewire.
“I’ve been trying to get a feature made since my short film Kiss Kiss Fingerbang won at South by Southwest in 2015,” says Wallace Horvat. “I would say maybe even before that, but not with many realistic expectations. I did think that after that win there was going to be more of a clear path. As in: ‘Oh, she won at South by Southwest; maybe we should look at her stuff the way that we look at stuff from some guy that hasn’t done anything yet.’ I was surprised when things didn’t quite happen that way.”
I Blame Society utilises a mockumentary format to explore the many obstacles facing young female directors, even when, in common with the film’s heroine, they are willing to kill to get into the film industry. Wallace Horvat directs, produces and stars as a homicidal version of herself, who, inspired by a friend’s “compliment” – that she would make a good murderer – sets out to make a documentary on how to commit the perfect murder.
The compliment was real.
“I made a short film called I, Murderer which I didn’t finish,” Wallace Horvat recalls. “And that was based on a real-life compliment that my friend gave me, that I would make a good murderer. So in the short documentary, I went out with friends and family and I took them to different murder locales like the middle of the woods or the docks or an empty parking lot. And then I asked them if they thought I would make a good murderer.
“I edited the documentary but I thought it was a bit insubstantial. I just happened to mention it in a meeting in a self-deprecating way – ha, ha! I did this crazy project. But they asked to take a look at it and they really enjoyed it and asked about fleshing it out into a feature that will use the documentary footage. And we realised that at some point the film stops being a documentary and she starts really killing people. That was something that we could do on a supersmall budget.”
There’s a lot in I Blame Society that’s autobiographical. But obviously, there’s a lot of things that are not real. Like the body parts. Because I haven’t actually killed anybody
Ever the ace archivist, Wallace Horvat cites 1968’s Coming Apart starring Rip Torn, a film she suggests was maybe the first “found footage” movie, as an inspiration for style and her own turn. The duality of Torn’s performance as a depressed psychiatrist secretly filming the patients he seduces is echoed in I Blame Society’s blackly comic jabs at the fictionalised Gillian’s aspirations and the industry’s many glass-ceiling scenarios.
Case in point: two indie studio execs (Lucas Kavner and Morgan Krantz) who are keen to demonstrate their feminist credentials by advising Gillian with phrases such as “strong female lead” and “breastfeeding in public”.
“There’s a stigma that prevents so many women from becoming film-makers,” Wallace Horvat says. “People are much more willing to take a leap of faith on a man – and give them a god-awful amount of money – because, for men, the profession is normalised. With women it’s like: she’s a first-time filmmaker and she’s a woman. It still feels like branding. A choice for someone to do something good.
“For some people, men just look better on a set. They look like they belong there. They fill out the pants better. Those meetings in the film are inspired by real-life incidents. There’s a lot that’s autobiographical. That’s really my mom and my grandmother and my apartment. But obviously, there’s a lot of things that are not real. Like the body parts. Because I haven’t actually killed anybody.”
While many female film-makers have been given long-overdue studio opportunities in the post-Weinstein industry, Wallace Horvat knows enough about film history to question the current narrative of analogue progression.
“The statistics are still abysmal, even post Me Too,” she says. “I think it’s fascinating that women were dominant in screenwriting until World War II. Some of the top screenwriters in the ’30s were women. Lenore Coffee was writing the best, the most awesome, compelling, chewiest cinema of the 1930s. There’s a ton of sexism in France, but they let Catherine Breillat make films. And I’m glad they did because she is one of my favourite film-makers of all time. The fact that she could start in the industry from a super young age and be writing softcore porn.
“That’s an avenue that definitely doesn’t exist here. We don’t have any softcore-porn development programme.”
I Blame Society is on digital download from today