Jessica Cameron was a special guest at the IFI Horrorthon 2014 and won our hearts with her love and enthusiasm for the genre, her humour and her style. Horrorthon’s Fiona Foskin watched her latest movie Truth or Dare and sat down with her for a natter…
Horrorthon: Your first foray into directing garnered you over 30 awards and nominations, along with a lot of respect from the industry. Do you think your extensive range of experience helped in your success?
Jessica Cameron: I definitely think it did because I learned what not to do, which in my opinion arguably is as important as knowing what to do. I’ve been on over 70 sets altogether and I really just sit back and watch when I’m not actually working on my acting or producing. I’m paying attention to things like, is the art direction being done well, is the director communicating with the actors, is he getting the results that he wants. and I think what you learn when you pay attention on a myriad of sets is that not any one thing or any one way is right for every film or every person, you sort of have to tailor it to the people and that what doesn’t work will never work.
I try to pay careful attention to that and I think it shows in the movie and also when we were shooting the film how smooth it was. I also know the importance of having two or three backup plans for every situation and everyone involved. You know being involved with films for years, I’ve learned that you simply have to, for every actor, even if they’re a loyal actor they could break their leg and not be able to do the role. There are so many determining factors that are out of your control that you just have to cover your bases and make a mental note, ‘ok, if anything were to happen here is what I would do’. So that ethic really guided us throughout the whole film process and led to the end product.
H: You have described yourself as an actors director, how does that influence Truth or Dare, how does it influence you when you are pushing your actors to achieve a horrific scene?
JC: I think being an actors director enabled me to really communicate clearly what I wanted and to really speak in a lingo that the actors understood and appreciated. As an actor I hate it when I get given a line reading and I don’t do that to my own actors. I really want them to find the voice inside of them for the character that they’re playing and to make it part of them, and really work with them. I think when you hire talented actors they can bring so much to the role if you let them explore and play with it. So I’m definitely a fan of … if the actor feels that the wording might not be ideal, real or accurate or if something could be better or stronger , then tell me, lets play with it. Worst case scenario, we’ll shoot it my way, then we’ll shoot it your way, then we’ll see what works in post. So I really try to work with them because the reason why I cast the actors that I cast is because they’re phenomenal, they do great work and their right for the role and great for the movie so I don’t want to neuter them or their performance so to speak.
H: How did you find pushing the actors in Truth or Dare in particular, because it is quite gory?
JC: Yeah, it’s extremely gory, it was definitely a challenge. I tried to make myself clear early on, I explained to them when I sent them the script how we were going to do each and every one of the stunts so that they all felt comfortable and confident in it and sort of explain to them here’s how it’s going to be shot, here’s what we can do to make you the most comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Obviously I think its crucial to be really honest with your talent, to say we’re going to be working really long hours, it’s a low budget shoot, it’s going to be 12/ 13 hour days. typically, on a good day, it’s going to be uncomfortable there’s not going to be as many breaks as you possibly might like etc. At one point my actress Heather Dorff, really had to use the bathroom and we were doing a camera set up, and shes a smoker, she said to me ‘ I really need to have a cigarette’ because it was a really intense scene, she said “I really need to go to the bathroom too.” The problem was that she was covered head to toe in blood . So in order for us to get her outside she couldn’t cross through the house without getting blood all over the place, we could clear a safe pathway to the bathroom for her but that would take about the same amount of time as a camera set up and we wouldn’t have time to get her out for the cigarette, we could get her out the garage door, un-barricade it and get her out that way and it would take about 15 minutes so I said, well, we really only have time for one of those things. She said, “Can I pee outside while I’m smoking?” So we’re in the middle of salt and sea in a family neighbourhood, it’s desolate, there’s not a lot going on there so I was like, “Sure I’ll come out and I’ll hold a towel, I’ll cover for you.” So she went outside covered in blood in her underwear had a cigarette and peed in the corner of the yard, in full view of everyone. I just held up a towel. Was it ideal? No, but she still got to do the two things that she needed to do.
H: How do you find the term ‘scream queen’? What would be the pro’s and con’s of this title for you?
JC: I think it’s an honour, I think to be known or labelled as anything in an industry that is so hard to get recognition or accolades in is a blessing. I think that the term scream queen for me means somebody who really loves the horror genre and focuses on that for their career, and really tries to be an advocate for everything related to that genre. Which I certainly am, and I do. I do believe it’s a term that should not be self imposed. I don’t believe that just because you’ve done one low budget horror film that you should be able to say on your Facebook and social media that you’re a scream queen. It should be something that the press and the fans give you. It’s like this, it’s one thing for other people to say you’re beautiful, it’s another thing for you to talk about how gorgeous you are. Let somebody else give you the title. You have to earn it and it takes more than one independent film to do that. It requires a certain dedication and affinity for the genre itself.
H: You’re involved in so many things from comedy, sci fi, producing, what’s your favourite ‘job’?
JC: I like acting the most, acting is certainly where my heart is, followed closely by producing. I do really love producing the films that I’m acting in so that I can have a hand in their production, their quality, when they’re coming out, where, promotion and really interacting with the fans. So that’s my ideal scenario, directing would fall third, followed by writing.
H: Did any directors that you’ve worked with before influence you when you were working on Truth or Dare?
JC: So many, I really took what I learned working for so many people that I know and tried to make the best film possible That was my M.O. So certainly the Soska sisters, who did Dead Hooker in a Trunk. I haven’t worked with them directly yet but just they’re being friends of mine and being women that I’ve followed for many years within the genre. I actually said to my producer when he approached me to direct Truth or Dare, you know if the Soska’s can do Dead Hooker in a Trunk I can do Truth or Dare. Because I knew we had more money than they had and I had been working in the industry with more contacts than they had and they’d done such a phenomenal job that it was just an inspiration to me when making my own movie.
H:You studied fashion and would have natural visual and artistic talents, how much of this did you bring to directing?
JC: My fashion design background informs everything I do in the industry. It’s how I carry myself, it’s how I prepare for characters and roles. I’m a very firm believer that wardrobe impacts your feeling, your mood. If you look at women specifically, they walk very differently in different types of shoes. If you give a woman a pair of 7 inch stilettos with a 2 inch platform she’s going to carry herself very differently to when she’s in a pair of running shoes. I really think that’s very important to character development as an actor and as a director I see the need for it in relation to making sure that the actors are doing their job well but also interacting with the other actors in the scene and how the audience is going to respond to them.
H: You’ve produced some amazing gore scenes, that can really cause discomfort and horror, how do you work to achieve maximum effect on your audience with these?
JC: My co-writer and I, Johnathan Scott Higgins, researched as much as possible. We called up friends who are doctors and nurses to make sure that we were writing the graphic vicious torture elements accurately and truthfully. We really tried to base it in reality. What I find personally frightening is when it looks real, when it could pass for actually physically happening. If it looks like it’s a movie prop or a stunt it takes me out of the film’s reality and I’m no longer scared. So we tried to do that and I think it worked really well. When we got our script blocked we worked with our special effects genius Carrie Mecardo to make sure that the visuals were in tone with reality, which was pretty horrifying. You can Google most things in life now, so if you ever really want to find out what a liver looks like you can, you can see full be-headings, there are some really dark places on the Internet. We went there to make sure that we were being truthful and to shoot it right, to do a wonderful job of making it very, very real. From there in post production we edited it well and clearly, to make it very fast paced. We then focused on sound design to make it as impactful as the visuals. That’s one of the things we get credited with, people look away from the movie because it’s too much for them to handle and then they’re taken aback by the sound. They close their eyes and it doesn’t stop.
JC: We do we have 75 vomit bags. If you vomit please use the bag, so many times people vomit and they don’t want to use the bag. I will give you a new one, I will give you a free t-shirt, but nobody has. We’ve had 14 people vomit but nobody has used the actual bags yet . One person has blacked out, many have walked out. I’ve been condemned, told I’m going to burn in hell. I say well if I am burning in hell for this I’m going to be in great company.
H: What makes a horror film stay with the viewer in your opinion?
JC: I think a really original and interesting concept and then I think trying to do it as well as you possibly can. Really making sure that your visuals are strong, the sound is strong and the performances. If anything stops being believable or real then it takes the viewer into the zone of, ‘oh I’m watching a movie.’ I think movies should be similar to a roller-coaster, once you’re on a ride you’re on this ride and when it’s over you’re like Holy Crap that was fun.’
H: In the horror film industry, who would you say has influenced/inspired you the most?
JC: The Soska sisters hands down. They’re such an inspiration, both as women in the industry who are strong, passionate, intelligent, beautiful dedicated and driven. As creative artists their ability to tell a story form a new brilliant perspective is never ending inspiration for me. American Mary is so brilliant in so many ways. Dead Hooker in a Trunk is fantastic, to make a movie with nothing and to make it so well is just so refreshing. I just saw their See no Evil 2, and what they did with what should be a dead franchise is mind blowing it’s a phenomenal sequel and in my opinion one of the best slasher films of the past decade.
H: As a guest of Horrorthon this year, what have been your favourite films so far/ looking forward to?
JC: So far I’ve loved The Editor and Housebound. The Editor is very different, very unique, Astron 6 made a movie that only Astron 6 could make. It’s hard to quantify. If Truth or Dare is a roller-coaster, the The Editor is Mr. Toads Wild Adventure, you’re not quite sure what it is. Housebound was exceptional, such a great film. Lost after Dark was a great film, a wonderful 80’s style slasher. The Babadook, went so many places that I did not expect it to go. It featured some of the most dynamic performances I’ve seen in a long time, also directed by a great female director, new on the scene, Jennifer Kent.
JC: It is my first time in Ireland. Oh I loved Stitches I thought it was so much fun, it was hilarious.
H: What advice would you give to any aspiring film makers out there?
JC: I would tell any aspiring film maker to get off their ass and go do it. Go make a movie, go make a feature. If you have a feature film that you want to make, go make it. Figure out a story you can make with whatever you have access to, what kind of equipment and funding you have. If you don’t have equipment and funding then figure out what you can do with that. We have never been in a better time for independent film makers. There are film makers making movies on their iphones, there are no more excuses.
H: You’re a constant worker, you have various projects in post production at the moment, what should we look out for?
JC: Utero is one that’s very near and dear to my heart. It’s one that I have produced with my Truth or Dare partner Johnathan Scott Higgins, directed by Bryan Coyne. It’s about an agoraphobic woman who realises that she’s pregnant and throughout the later stages of her pregnancy she begins to believe that her baby could in fact be a spider monster. I’ts probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever shot. Save Yourself is a really sexy grindhouse film coming out of Canada that I did, it’s the first time I’ve worked with Ryan M. Andrews, and it certainly won’t be the last. We’re getting ready to do our film slates for the next movie that I’m directing called mania, and it’s a f*cked up lesbian love story. We’re going to make it while travelling cross country back to back with a female hitch hiker film called Desolation, which I’ll star in. There’s going to be a documentary around the making of those three films called Kill the Production Assistant. The reason I wanted to make a documentary around making these independent films is because so many people when I get to talk to them, want to know how I did Truth or Dare. They are struggling film makers themselves and they want to know, how did you do it? I love sitting down and talking for hours, telling them everything I learned and telling them how I did what i did, and how they can do exactly what I did, but unfortunately there are not enough hours in the day to talk to everyone. I wish there was. So the next best thing is that I’m going to show you how we do everything we do, how we make our movies with very little money, very little resources and still make films that can garner such wonderful acclaim and accolades and tell the stories that we want to tell. I’m pretty excited because I’m hoping it will inspire people. I’m a firm believer that knowledge is meant to be shared, that knowledge is power and that the best thing we can do is to enlighten others.