In a new feature, Mark Doubt looks ahead to the genre stars of tomorrow, taking in their work so far and their future in the darkest of genres.
This first piece looks at writer/director Robin Shanea Williams.
Robin Shanea Williams is an auteur in waiting. Wearing the hats of writer and director, her DIY ethic recalls cult auteurs of days gone by, while her style and content is reminiscent of the isolation of early Polanski, the line-blurring expressionism of Jacques Tourneur and the dripping anxiety of Megan Freels Johnston. She has a couple of excellent short films under her belt, a collaborative effort with Nikyatu Jusu on the way…oh, and she was just announced as a semi-finalist in the 2018 Screencraft Horror initiative in addition to being a finalist in the 22nd Annual Urbanworld Film Festival. I take a look at her works so far, and hear from Robin herself.
Contamination (2014) ‘CLICK HERE TO WATCH’
The writer/director’s breakout short film is a psychological drama of sorts, focusing on the all too real and personal horror of agoraphobia, germaphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder. The tale of a woman who has retreated from a fulfilling life, now trapped behind barriers erected by her own treacherous mind, Contamination is an expressionist film, rich in shadow with a sickly, washed out colour palette that echoes the state of mind of protagonist Jade (Broadway actor Cherise Boothe). It won the Rising Star Award at the Richmond International Film Festival.
Mark Doubt: Jade’s anxious, compulsive behaviour is tragic and actually quite jarring. There is a power in that performance. Did Cherise Boothe need much direction for the role?
Robin Shanea Williams: Cherise Boothe is an incredible actress. I knew I wanted to work with her when I saw her in Ruined on Broadway. With Contamination, we had long discussions regarding the character of Jade and what I was looking for. We both did lots of research on people with OCD. Cherise brought her A game to this role. I was awed with the life she breathed in Jade. Our work together on set was effortless. She made my job very easy.
MD: There are expressionist touches in the film. Like when Jade opens the door to collect her parcel, and the whole apartment morphs and twists, mirroring her fragile psyche. How did you achieve that effect?
RSW: I have to credit the editor I worked with at the time, John Anthony. He added many of those great stylistic flourishes in post after I described to him the effect I was hoping to achieve. It was risky because the fear is feeling like you’re beating a viewer over the head with what you hope they’ll feel. But it seems like it worked.
MD: Are Rashid’s (actor Christopher D Burris) attempts to break down Jade’s anxious barriers and take her hand a necessary push towards normality, or is it a violation of her wishes? When he asks “How does that feel?” we don’t get to hear her answer.
RSW: When I was writing Rashid, I wanted to make sure he was someone who knew Jade before she imprisoned herself in her home. That was important. He was her connection to a life she had prior to her present condition. When Jade calls him, she is reaching back out to the world. I don’t think she was prepared for Rashid to be so determined, but I also believe Jade does want to break free. She never gets to answer that question at the end because it’s so overwhelming for her in that moment. Even the idea of truly “feeling” something other than fear is overwhelming and you can read that in her eyes.
MD: The use of sound and the set design is sparse, cold and unforgiving…it reminded me a little of Eraserhead with its pared back, industrial ambience!
RSW: Wow thank you for the Eraserhead mention. You know, we couldn’t afford a set designer and a friend of mine Debbie Pitts stepped in to help with set design. We used my friend’s apartment and just kind of found ways to strip it down and make it feel cold and clinical.
PARALYSIS (2016) ‘CLICK HERE TO WATCH VIA AMAZON PRIME VIDEO‘
Williams’ follow up to Contamination shows the development of her content and style, as it takes the themes of her previous work and builds on them. While it focuses once again on a female protagonist with a fragile mental state, a vibrant palette rich in primary colours combined with a hint of supernatural horror suggests a more confident director with a bold sense of expression. The sense of ambiguity recalls Mickey Keating’s 2015 chiller Darling.
MD: Like Contamination, there appears to be a central theme of (self) confinement in Paralysis. Jessica spends most of the film in her apartment, and appears cut off from her former life. Is isolation something you’re particularly interested in exploring in your work?
RSW: Yes I am and it primarily has come about because I’ve worked to make films on shoe-string budgets. Using one location has forced me to be more creative and imaginative with the stories I tell. It’s far more challenging and it’s actually really exciting for me because it allows me to explore my favorite subject: human psychology.
MD: Unlike Contamination, you introduce a hint of something otherworldly, giving us two possible readings of the film – a psychological one, and a supernatural one. Do you enjoy horror films that blur those lines and retain a sense of ambiguity?
RSW: Yes psychological horror is my favorite subgenre. I am most creeped out by the blurring of the real and unreal. Dream and reality. What’s really happening? Often psych horror narratives determine if the protagonist is losing their mind OR if there is some supernatural happening. I’ve always wondered, why can’t it be both? Paralysis is both.
MD: Again, there is a very powerful performance from your lead actor - Nia Fairweather this time. You seem to have a knack for finding excellent performers for your central characters!
RSW: Thank you!! I’ve been very blessed. Nia is also an incredible actress I was very fortunate to work with. She really brought Jessica to life beyond my expectations. She generously gave so much to this film and every time I see Paralysis, I’m blown away.
MD: The film has a very distinctive score, and I noticed juxtaposed primary colours in the production design that seem to subtly reference Italian classics such as Argento’s Suspiria and Bava’s Blood & Black Lace.
RSW: My producer Anthony Davis brought that song to me while we were still in pre-production and I loved it. I was like Wow. This song captures this film perfectly. I had to use it. For this film, our set designer was Ashley Gibson and she was wonderful. There are definitely visual references to classic horror films but no film in particular. But I loved the way the colors were illuminated in this film.
SUICIDE BY SUNLIGHT (2018) ‘CONCEPT TRAILER’
This forthcoming collaboration with director Nikyatu Jusu (Robin co-wrote the film with Jusu) manages to provide an original, modern twist on a classic horror character that is overdue a reVamp (sorry). The film centres on Valentina, a day-walking Black vampire protected from the sun by her melanin, who finds it difficult to suppress her bloodlust when a new woman is brought around her estranged twin daughters.
MD: Suicide Sunlight was awarded a ‘Through Her Lens’ production grant from The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program. It was selected by a panel that included Golden Lion-winner Mira Nair and industry legend Rachel Weisz. How did that feel?
RSW: Amazing. The experience was amazing.
MD: The idea that your central vampire character Valentina is protected from the sun by her melanin is an interesting and original one. So, in essence, her blackness is her power?
RSW: Yes. Which is so important in a society where black people and other people of color are constantly oppressed and marginalized because of the color of our skin.
MD: that’s a very empowering message juxtaposed with what has traditionally been quite a tragic creature. Is that what you and Nikyatu Jusu were going for?
RSW: Definitely. Nikyatu had this idea about black vampires for a few years before we ever collaborated. I knew then it was fantastic concept.
MD: Brilliant, thank you. I look forward to seeing the film when it is finished.
MD: Mind telling us a bit more about yourself? Your films consistently deal with female protagonists with an existential dread and crippling anxiety. What has influenced your screenwriting?
RSW: Honestly my life experiences have influenced my screenwriting as someone who battles a severe anxiety disorder. It’s very easy for me to tap into that because I’ve lived with it for much of my life. In regards to movies, there are so many but I’ll give you a few that I return to again and again: John Carpenter’s original Halloween, The Shining, The Haunting, Psycho, The Orphanage, Night of the Demon, Rosemary’s Baby, just to name a few. More recently I absolutely love the way Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation builds dread. It’s a near-perfect execution in that sense.
MD: Both Contamination and Paralysis deal with very human horrors…but then you co-wrote a film about vampires! How did that come about?
RSW: After seeing Paralysis, Nikyatu reached out to me about co-writing Suicide by Sunlight and I was honored. I love vampire movies and find vampire mythology fascinating so I was excited.
MD: You’ve proven adept at short films…any plans to try your hand at a feature? Any screenplays doing the rounds?
RSW: Yes yes yes! I am currently working to get my feature film funded. You’ll be happy to know I am again dealing with isolation and psychological horror themes again. In many ways, I am using some of what I explored in Contamination and Paralysis but also taking those themes and pushing them into new territory. Way, way new territory. I’m very excited.
(since the interview, Robin’s screenplay ‘A Precise Understanding of Darkness’ has been announced as a semi-finalist in the 2018 Screencraft Horror initiative. She is also a finalist in the 22nd Annual Urbanworld Film Festival, one of the largest international festivals of its kind. Mark Doubt and Beyond The Void wish her the best of luck and hope to see her taking home a clutch of awards in the near future!)
MD: Robin, thanks so much for talking with me. Anything else you want to say before we sign off?
RSW: I just want to thank those who have believed in me and collaborated with me. You’re the reason I have been able to live my dreams of writing and directing. And it’s only just beginning. I’d also like to thank everyone who has watched my films, commented on my films and supported my films. I’m just very grateful.
This week on Beyond The Void Horror Podcast they take on the Italian Horror genre again with Fulci’s Zombie 3 & Claudio Fragasso’s Zombie 4 After Death. Lot’s of fun trivia on both the movies as well as their reviews! Check it out! You can listen here or you can Listen/Subscribe on iTunes here!