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Caryn Coleman on Why the Future of Horror is Boldly, Brazenly Female

Monday, January 3, 2022 | Interviews


The horror genre has rarely felt more inclusive than it does now. Though always central to cinematic plots, female characters have rarely been given the agency to tell their own stories. But recent years have seen more and more women, femme identifying, and gender non-binary filmmakers stepping behind the camera. Central to much of this work is The Future of Film is Female, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing gender parity in the film industry.

Established in 2018, the foundation supports filmmakers early in their careers with funding, exhibition, and promotional programming. The foundation is committed to racial and gender parity and dedicated to supporting diverse filmmakers including femme, non-binary, and BIWOC within all of their programs. Through their grant program funding short films and partnerships with Rooftop Films, Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, NY, and the Museum of Modern Art, the foundation is working hard to create an equitable future of film. Rue Morgue sat down with founder and executive director Caryn Coleman to talk about the relationship between filmmaker and audience, the reevaluation of Jennifer’s Body, and why she believes the future of horror is boldly, brazenly female.

You are the founder of The Future of Film is Female and you’ve recently narrowed the foundation’s focus to horror. What do you love about the horror genre and why do you believe that the future of horror is female?

I’ve loved horror ever since I was eleven and I saw Halloween 5 in the movie theater. You know, the one where he pulls off the mask? I thought, “Oh Michael Myers is hot!” [Laughs] Well the actor playing him was. So when I look back now I think that was a pivotal moment in my life. 

I’ve had some similar crushes!

But I guess there are two reasons why I love horror. One is purely aesthetics. I love the creativity and the independent spirit that often comes along with horror films. But I always love that horror movies have something to say. That kind of segues into why I think the future of horror is female. I think that women have a lot to say and are now being afforded the opportunity to tell these stories. We’ve been the center of these narratives for so long and now women are being able to channel the everyday horrors that we deal with and make these really stunning works. It’s interesting because you almost can’t see something while it’s happening, but I think in 2014 there was a bit of a shift with The Babadook. And now almost ten years later, you can look back and see this line. I think it’s so interesting and vital now because we’re living in a really fucked up time. So, it’s like, “Bring it!” You know? Get these stories out!

A really exciting part of the streaming content offered on your website is virtual conversations with filmmakers. Some of these panels have focused on horror releases like Censor and Mayday and the most recent conversation was on religion in horror to celebrate the release of Mickey Reece’s Agnes. I watched them all and was just fist-pumping the whole time – there’s just so much insight and inspiration to be found. I would love to hear about the genesis of these conversations and what the experiences were like for you?

Well, the first one we did in conjunction with the online release of Meredith Alloway’s film, Deep Tissue. She and I put together this panel of people we knew and people we thought would have interesting perspectives, and it was like fire. We were all so grateful to have this space to just talk and nerd out about the things that we thought were happening [in film] and were really interesting [to us]. Then, Nightstream did their virtual festival and they asked me to do one, and [after that]. the filmmaker focused ones came on board. I work a lot with Magnolia Pictures and I really wanted to do something for Censor because I think this film is so incredible. We decided to do another panel and that’s when I invited Karyn Kusama and Jennifer Reeder to have a more generalized conversation. The newest one that’s on religion in horror is the first one that’s on a specific [theme]. 

It’s become this research deep dive into what is actually happening right now from a filmmaker’s perspective, and it’s opened up a lot of my thinking about where genre film is headed. [The discussions] been invaluable because they’re fun to listen to and they’re fun to have, but they’re also a huge learning tool for me. 

You’ve had some really fantastic filmmakers in some of these conversations. You mentioned Karyn Kusama, and Prano Bailey-Bond but you’ve also talked to Frida Kempff, Ashlee Blackwell, A.K. Espada, and many others. What are some of your favorite or most transformative takeaways from those conversations?

Well, I loved the first one. Everyone loves Karyn. She’s our queen. [Laughs] She’s also very generous with her time and with her thoughts. I’m always so grateful when she agrees to do anything with me. I say 2014 is this marker but I also think 2009 is very interesting for horror films. That’s when Jennifer’s Body came out. Also The Invitation in 2015. So many filmmakers that I talk to say, “Well I don’t know. I’m not really making a horror film.” Like Censor, “It’s not really a horror film, but it uses these elements.” And so we talk a lot about genre fluidity. What is that? And how do you use horror in other genres to tell these stories? I think that’s been one of my biggest takeaways. But they’re all just so fascinating. I’m always surprised at what comes up. Threat and trauma. Women being threatened in their daily lives is part of how we exist in the world. Childbirth. That’s been an interesting one too. These kinds of experiences that many of us have. It’s just amazing to have all different minds come together. 

The foundation hosts regular screenings and the site mentions the importance of audience relationships and gender relationships behind the camera. Can you expand a little bit on this connection between audience and filmmaker?

I recently hosted a panel with film programers and we talked about how we play “matchmaker” with audiences and films and filmmakers. That was Opal H. Bennett. She said that and I wrote it down. I thought it was such a fabulous thing because one doesn’t really exist without the other. A lot of times when we talk about gender parity in the film industry it’s really in relation to hiring and production but there’s a whole other world that happens once your series or film is made. What happens then? What happens after you do a festival run? What happens if you don’t get a festival run? It’s film programers and film distributors who really close the loop in ensuring that gender parity is possible because if audiences don’t see it then it doesn’t become normalized. You can make a lot of work and it just kind of falls under the radar.

I’m a film programmer so it just seems very natural to me but as an organization we try to think about the, “Now what?” We’re gonna help you with the “Now what?” What do you need? Do we need to do screenings? Do you need connections? That’s what we’re there for. 

The foundation is dedicated to equity by amplifying and supporting the work of all women filmmakers, female identifying and non-binary filmmakers as well. And you’ve committed to featuring and supporting BIWOC filmmakers each cycle. Why do you believe that’s an important commitment to make and to be explicit about?

I think, in terms of the last part of your question about being explicit, I don’t want it to be glossed over. I think the time to be quiet about being inclusive is done. One of the things we talk about is that feminism is intersectional with race, with gender identity and class, reproductive rights…it all intersects. In my programming, it’s never been only one thing and I think that these films with diverse voices have a lot to say.

I started the Future of Film is Female after I started the Nitehawk film festival at Nitehawk Cinema. We opened our 2016 festival after the election and I was like, “What can I do?” [Laughs] I’m not a creator, but I’m a person who has a privilege to put things out there, so I want to get the voices out there that matter. That continues into Future of Film and ensuring that we have women of color and non-binary filmmakers because you can’t achieve gender parity without all of this. I don’t want to be marginalized in my focus to think that it’s just white women creating stories. 

Feminism has a troubling history of being myopic, so I was really excited to see that commitment and transparency on the website. I thought that was really inspiring. 

Thank you. We say that representation matters for gender equality. It also matters for racial equality. You see more stories on the big screen and you go, “That’s the way it is now.” And that’s good.

I wanted to switch gears a little bit and ask about the zine! I know that zines have a long history in feminism and it’s a medium I find really fascinating. Could you tell us a bit about the Future of Film is Female zine? 

Oh my gosh. Yes! [Laughs] I was a teenager when Riot Grrrls were happening in the ’90s. I was 14, making my zines, putting them in my little backpack, handing them out at shows! [Laughs] We made the first one in 2019 and I wanted it to look like the zines I made when I was 14. I didn’t want it to be perfect. I wanted it to just be fun. It doesn’t have to be this didactic material that you’re reading, just an essence, a vibe. I come from the punk community and I want to have that sort of vibe to what Future of Film does and it’s so much fun. This last one that we did, I did 90% of it by hand. So printing out, cutting, gluing…it was so much fun. [Laughs] I was just at my desk doing it. It was all hand-done. I’m ready to do the next one! The work that we do is intangible and so to have a zine, it’s like, “Here’s a thing. Here’s an actual thing that we made!”

There’s something so cathartic about cutting through paper, gluing, and putting something physical together. 

There is! And I’m not a very crafty person. I have to make a diorama with my kid for his second grade project and I’m like, “NOOOOO,” but I’ll make a zine. [Laughs]

I also wanted to talk about your merchandise, which is available on the site. I see that you’re wearing a Future of Horror is Female sweatshirt…

 I live in this! [Laughs]

I’m going to have to pick one up because they’re so cool! How does the purchase of these incredible shirts, beanies, and buttons support filmmakers?

So, simply, the sale of all of our merchandise goes into our short film funds and that’s how we fund it. In February 2018, I launched a campaign that was like, “Buy this t-shirt and whatever we make, we’re going to award it to short filmmakers.” [Soon] after that it became exhibition focused, so that’s really how it started and that’s how [the short film grant program] is funded. The Future of Horror merch is the most popular, as it should be. To all the big movie people out there, there is an untapped resource of women in horror. They are ready! 

Absolutely! It’s a message that I really believe in and want to wear on my body. Like you said before, the time for being quiet about things is done. But there are a lot of other really cool things in the merch store – I’m a huge fan of Jennifer’s Body (being a Jennifer myself) and I wanted to ask about the “Extra Salty” buttons! What about that film speaks to you and what led to the design for those buttons.

Well, I’ll tell you the sad story of that button. I made those buttons for a Jennifer’s Body screening. It was our Halloween screening at Nitehawk and they arrived the day after the screening. [Laughs] So they were supposed to be gifts to the audience because I just wanted to do something special for everyone who came to the screening. We also had Karyn do a video recorded intro which was really nice. 

One thing I love about Jennifer’s Body is it shows that good products never die and if you make a good film, your people will find you. It’s a fun film with substance. Sometimes great horror can be a process to watch, but that movie is just all banger all the time. [Laughs] But it also has a really interesting weight to it and what it explores in terms of coming of age, being a teenage girl, lesbian relationships, and Satan! I love watching that movie and just enjoying myself for 90 minutes. 

You’re right! For a film with some darker themes, it really is a fun movie. I walk away from it feeling so inspired and strong.  I could geek out about it for years!

Yes! And revisiting the emo aughts? It’s great!

Your foundation awards grants three times a year and has funded some incredible filmmakers, including one of my own favorite writers, Kier-La Janisse. Can you tell us a little bit more about the program and the impact that you see it making?

We have up to 45 projects. Some of the projects have double filmmakers so 45 projects. And that’s been a mix of financial support and post production support with two post houses. We’ve created a family and that’s part of our mission. It’s a strong community that we’re building. They’re all lovely people. No assholes allowed!

You’ve got a lot of really exciting projects coming up in 2022. Can you give us a little tease about what’s in store for the Future of Horror is Female?

Our most recent conversation is centered around Agnes with Molly Quinn, Kate Siegel, and Anita Rocha da Silveira. We’re doing a preview screening of Erin Vassilopoulos’s Superior in February, which premiered at Sundance last year. We’ll be doing our grants. We’ll be doing our next program at MOMA at some point. There’s a lot. No rest for the wicked! 

Outside of the foundation, what’s exciting you about horror right now? What are you looking forward to and what filmmakers would you like to work with?

Well, I mean Rose Glass forever and a day! I’m very curious for what Prano Bailey-Bond does next. Nikyatu Jusu has her film Nanny coming out that I cannot wait to see. Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother comes out next year which I’m excited for everyone to see. Good Madam from Jenna Bass. There’s a lot of really great stuff that I’m excited to see in the theater and also excited for audiences to see. 

What’s the best way for readers to support the Future of Horror is Female?

Three things. If you’re in New York, come to one of our screenings. I would say more than half of our screenings are genre related. You can also follow us on Instagram, and [visit] our website to watch our horror conversations. We make announcements there. We’re doing a lot. I was gonna do three a year but they keep coming! And then donate money. We need money. I’m not afraid to ask this anymore. We have a kickstarter up right now where you can help support our talk series for next year but money’s good any time. [Laughs] And you can buy our shirts! 

Visit The Future of Film Is Female online and follow on Instagram for continuing updates.

Jenn Adams
Jenn Adams is a writer and podcaster from Nashville, TN. She co-hosts both Psychoanalysis: A Horror Therapy Podcast and The Loser’s Club: A Stephen King Podcast. In addition to Rue Morgue, her writing has been published at Ghouls Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Certified Forgotten. She is the author of the Strong Female Antagonist blog and will gladly talk your ear off about final girls, feminism, and Stephen King. @jennferatu