SYLVIA CAMINER chats FOLLOW HER, Horror and Social Media Storytelling – Interview by Nadine Whitney

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Sylvia Caminer is an Emmy winning television director and documentary maker. Turning her talents to directing the social media horror satire Follow Her has seen Sylvia move into a genre that frees many women directors and writers to examine society and inherent sexism. Follow Her blends horror, thriller, comedy, and social commentary with ease and purpose and is definitely a film you should like and subscribe to. In this interview, Caminer discusses what attracted her to the horror genre and to this project in particular.

Nadine Whitney: Dani Barker writes and stars in Follow Her, what led to your collaboration as the director?

Sylvia Caminer: A mentor and dear friend, John Gallagher (I produced three of his films – Blue Moon, The Deli and Men Lie), introduced me to Dani. I’d been reading a lot of scripts and was immediately drawn to the story and its potential. I loved how flawed the female protagonist was and her journey over the course of the film. Dani and I totally connected from the very first call, I could sense she was a collaborator and very open to workshopping the script. We spent about ten months developing it and broadening the story – like bringing in the live-stream element and focusing on the first and third acts. Dani is a very talented writer and performer, and it was great fun working with her on this.

NW: You are an Emmy winner, but your work has been mostly documentaries and travel based. What inspired you to move into horror?

SC: My appreciation of cinema is very broad and includes a love of genre films since I was a kid. I started as a director for the stage but pretty quickly moved into working in film, first as a production assistant for some of my heroes (Scorsese, De Niro, and Redford) but then moving into producing indie features. I had always planned on directing features, but these next years were an absolute whirlwind producing a dozen films. I got pretty burnt out, so I decided I needed a slight change and went looking for an opportunity to combine my love of travel with storytelling. This led to traveling the country and then the world on a few different Discovery/Travel Channel series with travel host, Samantha Brown. During this time, I also managed to direct a couple of feature documentaries Tanzania: A Journey Within, a very personal and transformational journey around the country and An Affair of the Heart about the unique relationship between pop star Rick Springfield and his extremely devoted fans.

About five years ago I began reading scripts looking specifically for a genre film to make my narrative feature directorial debut. My fascination with horror/thriller and using that niche to make a thought provoking, entertaining and commercial film seemed like the perfect entry for me. I don’t plan on being a visitor to the horror/genre world, I plan to stay in it, though not exclusively.

NW: Are you concerned with how people use social media for validation?

SC: Like most things that have an addictive quality they can be harmful if we place too much importance on them. The fact that social media is so interactive, and success is judged by likes and follows, I believe can have an adverse effect on one’s psyche. It can end up replacing meaningful, honest, and in person interactions with something that is two-dimensional and, in many cases, not real. This exploration is one of the things that really drew me to telling this story. The lead character, “Jess” finds her self worth and financial means by putting herself out there on social media which leads her down a rather dark path. When I started the project, I had very little personal experience with it, but my documentary background helped me to entrench myself in that world.

NW: Follow Her has some explicit sex scenes, how did you ensure cast and crew were comfortable?

SC: Dani and I discussed this aspect of the script extensively as the initial draft actually had a lot more nudity which together, we deemed would be more powerful if it was trimmed down. Unexpectedly we found ourselves filming the big bedroom scene first up on day one as a result of weather issues. I had read through and discussed the full script with the two leads (Dani and Luke Cook) during our rehearsal process. Both Dani and Luke expressed they were very comfortable with the scene and while filming I was very cognizant of their vulnerability and continually checked in with each of them. We blocked the scene first, just the three of us so that they felt in control. Our AD maintained a “closed set” so only mandatory crew members were present. Dani and Luke also discussed boundaries amongst themselves as they needed that trust as well especially as it was happening on day one. There are a couple of other occasions where “Jess” has some quick nudity, we discussed other options but ultimately together decided they were vital to the story and those were completely closed sets in fact just with the actors and camera.

NW: There are Hitchcockian influences in Follow Her, who are some other filmmakers that inspired you?

SC: Films like Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe and Dan Trachtenberg’s, 10 Cloverfield Lane offered great inspiration as they both deal with a female being trapped in a physically stronger male’s dwellings but in both cases the women were fierce and truly fought back. They are also such entertaining films that keep you on the edge of your seat guessing what’s coming next. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, John Goodman went from being an affable slightly odd guy to downright chilling in the blink of an eye. I hoped we could bring that type of menace to “Tom.” Then there is also The Strangers, by Bryan Bertino, which is one of the scariest films I have seen in recent years. The sense of dread in that film is incredible … you know something truly awful is coming and so you wait getting more and more on edge. What added to the tension was how the audience knew more than the lead characters which is something that I worked hard to bring to Follow Her, and what Hitchcock was such a master at. Other recent genre films I truly appreciate are Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, what an intelligent, engaging, and scary as hell film. As well as Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake. This is truly an exciting time for all fans of genre!

NW: Follow Her blends satire, horror, and erotic thriller. How did you bring these elements together?

SC: That’s a pretty good way to sum up the feel of the film I’d say it’s probably one third of each. The story really lends itself to satire, so I wanted to dig into that. I believe if you can engage an audience through laughter (doesn’t need to be big belly laughs) you can get them committed and I thought we might have that opportunity by making good natured fun of social media as well as horror tropes. Hopefully engaging the audience and having them let their guard down so by the time they remember they are in a horror film it’s too late and they are anxious to find out if Jess is going to make it out. The eroticism of the piece also felt natural especially as we were not doing it specifically for the male gaze and my favorite type of horror is suggested rather than blatant and in Follow her the horror truly comes out of an expectation and an unease of what lies ahead. I won’t say too much more as I don’t want to give any spoilers.

NW: Follow Her has been receiving a lot of praise. What do you think makes the film connect with audiences?

SC: I think we all know someone like “Jess” if not personally then someone we follow online and we perhaps wonder how far they have gone or would go for fame. Plus, who doesn’t love a good cat and mouse thriller that you can actually kind of imagine happening in real life. I also think that the broadness of Tom’s character makes him a villain you love to hate, and you may just root for Jess to get a little bit of what she deserves.

NW: Dani Barker and Luke Cook’s characters are antagonistic, but they also have incredible chemistry. How did you capture that in your directing?

SC: Luke and Dani did such a great job at this and really brought it. I knew the story would only work if you could feel that instant spark and the growing attraction. Jess follows Tom down some pretty questionable paths and that she has to be a driving force as well as personal ambition. Casting was a huge part of it, and I feel so fortunate that our casting director, Judy Henderson, brought us Luke Cook. He is very charismatic, and he and Dani had a magnetism between them from the start. My DP, Luke Geissbuhler, and I spoke about filming them in a way that felt intimate and to see Jess and Tom studying and falling for each other right from when they meet in the park. You see her stumble immediately as she is so surprised by how attractive he is and the chemistry she feels. Tom also brings that longing which by the end you wonder if it was all just an act and that’s great. My editor, Alex Gans, was also terrific at this and we made a point at times to watch the reaction of what the other character was saying rather than cutting to the person talking.

NW: How different do you think people are to their online personas?

SC: I think it totally depends on the person and what they are using social media for. Generally, though I suspect online personas give a very narrow view of a person and that view may be fully fictitious. Anything posted is for public consumption with an eye towards “likes” so most of the time I’d suspect that one’s authentic identity moves towards creating a persona that will attract an audience usually by specializing in one or two things. I’d equate it with some of the hysterical stories I have heard from friends who’ve used dating apps and then met people that had very little resemblance to their profile. It’s a creative medium so I take it all with a little skepticism.

NW: What projects do you have coming up?

SC: I’ll start by saying that I support the Writers’ Strike and believe that writers deserve to get their fair share. Until we come out of the strike things are pretty much on hold but I can share that I am excited to be teaming up with producer, David Higgins (Hard Candy) on an elevated horror film, It Walks Among Us. We both discovered Will Davis’ script out of the UK and decided to join forces. I’ll direct and we will produce it together. I have also partnered with novelist, Nick Jones, on adapting for the screen the first of his Joseph Bridgeman Time Travel Series, And Then She Vanished. I can’t wait to get back to these projects, hopefully the strike will be resolved quickly. I have also been working on a documentary project, 2bMe, about gender and biological sex.

NW: What is it like being a woman working in a mostly male dominated field?

SC: I do feel fortunate to be making movies now when there seems to be a shift to accept and help women get behind the camera. The percentage is still way too low and much lower even still in the genre world but at least it seems to be moving in the right direction. I never really felt I was at odds on the journey of making the film but statistically speaking it does appear that it is a bit easier for men to raise money to make films. I grew up in a household though where there was no distinguishing between what I could do because I was a female rather than male, so I personally have never let it keep me from chasing a dream or a job.

NW: Why do you think people should see Follow Her?

SC: It is a physiological thriller that takes you on a ride and hopefully will make you question your relationship with social media or that of someone you love. The two leads have great chemistry and I think it’s an original cautionary tale for the social media and influencer age.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.