There have been many different responses to Gillian Wallace Horvat’s film I Blame Society (and personally I think that signals endurance), but love it or not, everyone who has seen the film has things to say. You may have already read my views on the film; after Gillian herself did, she agreed to sit down and share her own insights with me.
In I Blame Society, Gillian essentially plays herself, or rather a version of herself who goes off on a tangent from her filmmaking life to a serial-killing one. So she has written and directed something utterly “meta” and given it an extra sense of reality by being the main character. Both the real and fictitious Gillian had been making short films until this one, and I started our conversation by asking her how she made that move to a full feature film:
“I always wanted to make a feature. The world of shorts is not something that you’re aware of, growing up: there’s not a lot of shorts to rent in the video store, after all—it’s all features. When I was growing up, I wanted to make a feature, but when I went to film school, they said ‘you’ve got to make a short first and work up to it.’ So I started in film school and made shorts; then after film school, I got another degree, in film studies; then after I graduated with that, I actually did make a feature. I produced a documentary about Samuel Fuller, the American filmmaker. Producing is a lot of work—a brutal and thankless job—and it reminded me how much I liked directing.
“I started directing shorts again, so I could express my voice some more and exercise more control. At the same time, I met the person who edited my first short, Kiss Kiss Fingerbang, Elijah Drenner. He is a giant in the space of behind-the-scenes material and featurettes for classic movies: he’s made hundreds, maybe thousands, of short documentaries that end up on releases from Arrow, Olive, and Kino Lorber, boutique labels like those that reissue. He started getting me into it, so I was simultaneously making my own shorts and these documentary shorts. But it had always been my goal to make a feature, so I was just biding my time until someone reached down from the clouds to give me the money to make it. That obviously never happened. Instead, that barrier had to be surmounted in a much more hard scramble and underground way than I ever anticipated.”
Men, after seeing the shorts that I have made, would give me this kind of sly smile and say things like […] ‘you seemed like such a sweet girl, and your shorts are so f*cked up!’ And it’s really stomach-churning when someone says that because it’s so infantilising and so deluded to think that I would have to be a ‘bad girl’ or a ‘mean girl’ to make strange movies. It’s like they’re thinking the way that I read you or want to read you is non-threatening, and yet you made something that disturbed me, and I need to re-establish a power dynamic. It’s a really creepy thing to say.
Of course, Gillian’s character in the film—the other Gillian—had a similar backstory. I had to ask just how similar are these two people? “We share a lot of characteristics,” said Gillian. “We have the same background, apparently the same mother, and the same grandmother. We live in the same apartment. The same awful thing happened to our hair. But I’ve never killed anybody. And I’ve never wanted to. So there are differences, and that’s part of the pleasure of the film, building on that confluence. That makes it less likely for the audience to be prepared when the line eventually gets crossed.”
Considering the central character had a starting point in reality, it was interesting to wonder how she was intended to come across. Everyone I know who has seen it seems to have a different perspective on that fictitious Gillian, prompting me to ask whether Gillian had meant her to be an endearing character, unlikeable, or something else entirely. “I think that she’s supposed to be sympathetic,” said Gillian. “I think it’s not important whether she’s likable or not. Like you said, that’s very personal, depending on how much you identify with her, how much you feel like an outsider yourself (you might experience catharsis when Gillian transgresses). Also, how entertained you are, how much your sense of humour aligns with the film—that will also allow you to have fun and maybe suspend judgment for an hour and a half. I don’t think it does anyone any good, or is any fun, to like go into a movie and think ‘I don’t know if I like this person. I don’t know if I’d let them babysit my kids or my cat.’ They’re fictional people! Enjoy being around people that you can go away from at the end of the film, expose yourself to other kinds of people than you would in real life. Maybe there’s something about social media right now, where we have a very curative bubble of people and voices that we’re used to hearing from, and the intrusion of somebody that is an outlier is more uncomfortable than it used to be.”
As for the people surrounding Gillian in the film, I wondered if those were caricatures of people that “real” Gillian knows. “I don’t know if I’d say caricatures. There are these people in Gillian’s orbit that we only have a brief time with, so we have to get some of them in very broad strokes. I think that people like Keith and Chase get their due: we get to see where they’re coming from and feel for them. There’s a lot of empathy for their relationship with Gillian, watching her change, and the pain it causes them, and the eventual destruction it brings.” I had found Keith’s character particularly real, especially in his final scene.
Chase Williamson was Gillian’s cowriter in I Blame Society, as well as a cast member, and I asked her what the writing partnership was like: “I met Chase in 2017, and we worked on a short together. It was kind of an artistic soulmate relationship. I never had thought about writing with anyone before: I’m way too much of a control freak for that, and I feel like when I’ve tried to do that in the past with friends, it’s always been me that has ended up doing the work; not because they aren’t great writers, but just because I’m more demanding.
“So it always felt like it was better for these friendships if I just write alone. But when I Blame Society happened, we had a very tight turnaround, and I knew that I didn’t have the time to research the stuff about true crime that I thought would be necessary to make the film seem authentic and grounded in reality; and, Chase was already a true crime expert and a brilliant writer, which I knew from the stuff he’d shown me. It’s hard sometimes for actors, especially ones as conventionally attractive as Chase is: they get underestimated, and I’ve heard from Chase some of the truly egregious things people have said to him—shocked that he can form full sentences. The way that we demean actors is really bad, and it has to be our compensation for why they are so talented and attractive: they must be stupid, and we say that to make ourselves feel better. But really there are people out there, like Chase and a lot of actors, who are really very multi-talented people, who just have to be charismatic and photograph well, too!
“The process was that I wrote an outline, then from there assigned scenes for each of us to write. Then we’d read back and do passes over it, so we did it pretty quickly, with very few revisions. The producers were like ‘this is funny, good job.’” This response is very unlike the two producers that Gillian’s character met in the film, who weren’t at all so accommodating. I asked Gillian where they came from. “They come from a lot of meetings that I’ve had and friends of mine have had. It’s kind of a mosaic of different things that really happened, with some improvisation from our super-talented actors, too.”
I’d picked up from Gillian previously that the “sweet girl” label had come from real life, too, so I asked if there was a story behind that. “I can’t remember the specific instance, and I think that’s because it’s happened more than once. Men, after seeing the shorts that I have made, would give me this kind of sly smile and say things like ‘you seemed like such a sweet girl.’ I think it really did happen in one of the meetings that was an influence for the producers in the film: they said ‘you seemed like such a sweet girl, and your shorts are so f*cked up!’ And it’s really stomach-churning when someone says that because it’s so infantilising and so deluded to think that I would have to be a ‘bad girl’ or a ‘mean girl’ to make strange movies. It’s like they’re thinking the way that I read you, or want to read you is non-threatening, and yet you made something that disturbed me, and I need to re-establish a power dynamic. It’s a really creepy thing to say.” After that deep insight, it’s easy to wonder whether anyone would want to be called a “sweet girl”!
I think that when men make movies with strong female leads, they have to try harder for it to be feminist because it doesn’t come from an authentic place. Whereas I can’t help but make films that represent that position, because I do want to have equal opportunities and equal chance with anybody, and that’s what feminism is. If that’s my position, I think it’s hard for me to make something that doesn’t reflect that, because otherwise, I wouldn’t make it.
There was something else to ask about that I had raised in my review; although I was confident about the interpretations I had made, it would be interesting to see if they lined up with Gillian’s intention. I knew this was a simplistic question, but here goes anyway: was I Blame Society intended as a “feminist film”? Gillian’s answer was another insightful one. “I think a writer comes up with an idea and a story, and then once you’re working on it, or the concept finishes resonating in your head, you might think ‘oh this is good, it’s really feminist, and blah blah.’ But I don’t think anybody goes out and says—or should say—‘I’m going to make a feminist thing.’ I think in order for the benefit of the feminism in the idea, it’s actually better to work on the story as a story, to fully flesh that out and let it develop. The ideas will present themselves more coherently, rather than squishing them in deliberately from outside of the story. I think that for women (and people who are on the same page as women) who want to create these subversive ideas about the representation of women, it comes naturally from the inside.”
Gillian didn’t find it easy to articulate this, but I understood, and it sounded perfectly reasonable. When you watch a film or a show with a deliberate agenda, it can seem contrived, but when it comes from a part of the writer’s character, the themes emerge naturally. Gillian continued: “I think that when men make movies with strong female leads, they have to try harder for it to be feminist because it doesn’t come from an authentic place. Whereas I can’t help but make films that represent that position, because I do want to have equal opportunities and equal chance with anybody, and that’s what feminism is. If that’s my position, I think it’s hard for me to make something that doesn’t reflect that, because otherwise, I wouldn’t make it.”
So having heard about how Gillian’s life has influenced her art, I asked what films she considers to have influenced her. “My favourite film is WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and I really love how that film has a thesis and uses different genres to articulate its idea, rather than just one storyline. And it has so much humour and dark truth to it. Then my second favourite movie is Blazing Saddles, so I guess that tells you what kind of person I am: I like movies with lots of dark jokes in them, with a political edge. Both those films have inspired me at different times in my life.”
One of the other Horror Obsessive writers suggested that I ask Gillian what she might programme alongside I Blame Society as a double feature: would it be one of those two films then, or something else? “It’s really funny: I was a guest teacher on a course at North Western that a friend of mine teaches recently, and he asked me the same thing. He said ‘we’re going to watch your film, and we’re going to talk about it, and what film would you like us to show alongside it?’ And so, I said this film wasn’t an influence on I Blame Society, I saw it afterward, but I felt that it resonated very powerfully with how I was feeling about the role of the female director: that film was Kissed by Lynne Stopkewich. I think they’re a good match because they are films that women made as a very personal form of expression, and not made for anybody else, or in response to an anticipated market demand or a suspected place that was open in the cultural discourse: nobody asked for either of these films. In Lynne Stopkewich’s case, nobody said ‘I really want to know what female necrophiliacs think and want.’ That’s what makes these films so pure: nobody asked for them, so they can really connect authentically with audiences.”
I Blame Society had reminded me of Adrian Țofei’s film Be My Cat: A Film for Anne, and I asked Gillian if she’d seen it. “No, I’d not heard of that, to be honest, until someone brought it up in a review when they covered the Unnamed Footage Festival. It sounds really interesting because it comes from an opposite place, yet arrives at a similar position—like our two films are talking to each other. It seems that the director came to his film from method acting and improvising, whereas for me, I Blame Society comes from my experience as a filmmaker, not an actor. He spent time creating naturalism on camera, whereas for me it was important to generate emotional realism but with mannerism on show because this is a person who is always filming herself, and always knows she is being filmed, acting with a split consciousness, filming for herself and also for an unknown spectator.”
Focusing back on I Blame Society, I asked Gillian if she could shed light on that title: I blame society for what? “It’s kind of supposed to be this expression that you don’t know who is expressing. It’s funny when you look at titles of films: we know the dialogue in films comes from the character, but who is the author of the title? Whose view is that expressing? There’s something abstract and disembodied about titles, and it’s interesting to have a title that sounds like a form of speech—like The Silence of the Lambs—I mean not a full sentence, whereas I Blame Society is. So I think it’s interesting because you would attribute it to the main character: as in ‘Gillian blames society and it’s her manifesto,’ as though it’s her I Shot Andy Warhol. But at the same time, I want to problematize that and complicate that: even though she does blame society, and she’s right, I think she should also blame herself and take responsibility for a lot of her decisions. But she doesn’t, and she never will. That makes her a challenging person, but a more realistic one, I think.”
It made me wonder what Gillian’s defence would be if she got caught, which is almost inevitable (in my opinion). “Yeah, but it’s up to the audience,” said Gillian. “There’s definitely a way out at the end, but I do think she’s carrying a lot of evidence around on her person that places her ‘at the scene.’ But society wants to deny her credit for what she’s done, and I wonder if even killing people on film would persuade people to change their minds about what women are capable of. We see so much evidence over thousands of years that there’s very little that separates men from women in terms of abilities, but people still have no problem making specious arguments and finding ways to disenfranchise women, disregarding that evidence. So it makes me think that with Gillian walking around with video of her killing people, if it undermines a deeply held social belief, it just won’t matter.”
Isn’t that a bit pessimistic, I asked? “I don’t think it’s pessimistic,” Gillian responded. “She’ll be free; it’s good for her. I don’t know. If there’s a way for women to get what they want operating outside the system, then there is a way to do it. I don’t think we should be shoved into paths or processes that people say are what we should want, and that to find pleasure outside the system is part of the goals: to undermine and flaunt it in their face, like Gillian does. It’s sad because we can’t get the things that we want, but there’s pleasure to be had nonetheless.”
I Blame Society comes from my experience as a filmmaker, not an actor. […] For me it was important to generate emotional realism but with mannerism on show because this is a person who is always filming herself, and always knows she is being filmed, acting with a split consciousness, filming for herself and also for an unknown spectator.
In anticipation of this interview, I had talked with some other writers about I Blame Society, and there was a fascinating consensus: we don’t have enough female killers, and when they do crop up, it seems they had to kill because their man made them do it, or because somebody abused their family, not just because they wanted to kill. I asked Gillian how much she agreed with this, and the answer caught me just as much by surprise. “I think there’s an overlooked subgenre of female killers who kill for what they want. There have been a lot of ‘black widow’ films over the years, which are really pleasurable: these are women killing not just for money, but for sex, working their way through husbands. These are films in which the women are punished the most at the end because they have undermined everything in society. There are some really great ones; obviously, Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow, which has a powerful kind of unconsummated love affair between two women (Debra Winger and Theresa Russell). There’s also one I loved called Ivy with Joan Fontaine and she’s a murderous Edwardian belle, who’s just as horny and avaricious as anyone you’d see on Gossip Girl. Also, there are some really great British ones: I love Margaret Lockwood, and she made a great one called Bedelia.”
So what’s next for Gillian Wallace Horvat? “I’m pivoting away from horror for a minute, focusing on baseball. I’m writing a lot of baseball stuff. Our DP Olivia [Director of Photography Olivia Kuan] is directing her first feature, and it’s my turn to support her. I’m really grateful that she asked me to write the script for the film that she’s developing, which is a biopic of one of the first female sports journalists in the United States, who broke a lot of barriers in the 1970s and was never really given her due: that was Anita Martini, and she was a really interesting person. We’re trying to break open the conventions of not just sports biopics but biopics in general, just kind of rescue it from Oscar season and middle-brown boringness. There are some really great biopics out there—they just get overlooked sometimes because of how weird they are. My favourite is this film that never got released in the United States period, called The Last Family; it’s a really strange Polish film about a painter. If more biopics were like The Last Family, Oscar season wouldn’t be so miserable.”
I joked that Gillian could probably combine baseball with horror. “I’ve seen a few baseball thrillers,” Gillian retorted. “Weirdly there’s a baseball serial killer film, called Night Game, and The Fan is a great baseball thriller. They’re out there: baseball is just the trappings and there’s a lot of room for everything inside of that.”
As with every other filmmaker I’d spoken to in the last year, I asked Gillian what it had been like releasing a film during a global pandemic. “It’s had its challenges, but it’s had its benefits too. The good part is having a captive audience: as people have been stuck at home, they work through the obvious things to watch, and it gives them time to experiment and check out the things they wouldn’t normally look at. That’s been nice, but on the other hand, resources have been really strained, and it’s made releasing an indie movie even harder than it usually is. Hopefully, the next film will be easier.”
I shall look forward to that, especially considering its contrasting nature. In the meantime, I Blame Society is available to rent and buy, and I heartily recommend it.