By JENN ADAMS
Rape-revenge films are notoriously divisive. For every Roger Ebert declaring I Spit On Your Grave “a vile piece of garbage,” there are countless horror fans who find empowerment in these tales of female vigilantism. Already known for its complicated themes, horror has a long and often uncomfortable history of reckoning with stories about women who find no other option but to take justice for themselves. But the past decade has seen more and more women stepping behind the camera and wielding the pen, particularly in the rape-revenge subgenre. Many are now being helmed by survivors and women intimately familiar with the subject matter, lending fresh relatability, empowerment, and catharsis to a brutal cinematic pattern. TAKE BACK THE NIGHT is one such film. With its nebulous monster and all-female cast, Gia Elliot’s collaboration with star Emma Fitzpatrick is an original take on the rape-revenge subgenre.
Jane Doe (Fitzpatrick) is a visual artist and influencer who finds herself alone in a dark alley while walking home from a party. Hours later, she stumbles into a hospital, covered in bruises and blood having escaped an attack by a shadowing figure. Though initially supportive, the detective assigned to her case begins to doubt some of the details of Jane’s story, throwing her entire case into question. Jane becomes the target of the investigation, haunted not only by the monster who attacked her, but by the criminal justice system itself. TAKE BACK THE NIGHT is a refreshingly frank depiction of sexual assualt and the revictimization that often accompanies reporting it. Rue Morgue sat down with co-writer and director Gia Elliot to talk about the film’s courtroom origins, intentional ambiguity, collective voice, and empowering message.
What inspired you to tell this story?
Well there’s a list, right? There’s a list of reasons. I went to law school and my Criminal Law professor specialized in the legislation of different types of sexual violence. So I spent a year deep-diving the placement of commas and their real-life implications. Meanwhile, I was also sitting next to a judge on the Superior Court of New York. It’s the bottom-most court in the criminal justice system despite its fancy name. I was watching loads of cases. Because I came in on calendar days I would see motions hearings, sentencing, lots of really scary things. I saw quite a few sexual violence cases. And it really made me ill how many conversations grown, smart men in suits would have about whether somebody’s fingernails were ripped off enough to prove the attack was forcible. The word forcible will really ruin someone’s shot at seeing justice.
The way that the intake questions are written for survivors basically ignores any sort of psychology. They do not account for the way that your right brain and your left brain stop communicating which then impacts how memories are stored. Which then impacts how you can access those memories. Which obviously impacts how you answer a question to a cop. And so all those things together, they haunted me.
What was it like collaborating with co-writer and star Emma Fitzpatrick and how did you two create the story?
I found Emma who at the time was in Los Angeles. She was on a quest to build her bench of female friends. And I was like “well I’ll be your friend.” [Laughs] “What do you like to talk about? Are you interested in sexual violence?” And said yes. She had been taking classes online about trauma and its impacts on the brain. I was like, “oh my god. Step into my office.” [Laughs]
From there we started a book club. We were thinking it’s so much to talk about. We’re just two people. What if we get a group of people together. We’ll read and we’ll discuss and we’ll have a meeting of the minds. Our book club quickly escalated from one night a month to Emma and I just talking around the clock. We were sending each other photos of our notes and outlines, ways that we were digesting information. That sort of turned into thinking we should make a movie about it. I said, “You’re an actor. I’m a writer and director. What if we put our heads together and start shooting?” I had a camera that I had access to. I taught myself how to use it and we started filming.
What was the filming process like?
We filmed on nights and on weekends and we got Angela Gulner involved, who plays Jane’s sister. We worked very experimentally at first going into spaces and exploring, discovering performance, discovering moments. I’m a huge fan of Dolores Huerta the activist. She has a saying, “there’s power in your body.” Talking to farmworkers in northern California, she says, “you think that you’re not powerful enough to effect change but there’s power in your body. You hold power in your physical space. Show up places.” So we would occupy places with our bodies and figure out stories birthed from these moments of connection. And then we started stringing together a screenplay based on that.
After five or six months of us doing this, Marcus Dunstan caught wind of what we were doing. He directed The Collection that Emma is the star of and he’s written a bunch of the Saw films. He pulled me aside at a Christmas party and said, “My mom was part of the Take Back the Night organization on her college campus. It’s always meant something to me. I’d like to help you. Can I see your footage?” We showed it to him and he was like, “hey, have you thought about really making a movie? Getting some financing and hiring people to help you?” I told him I’d never once considered this as an option. I wouldn’t know where to begin. But he said, “Well the good news is, I have an idea.” And so he connected us to who would become our financier. It wasn’t a lot of money. It was just enough to pay insurance and SAG, but it got us really considering what we were saying in an even more serious way. That’s when we wrote a very official, shootable, buttoned-up screenplay.
I love how intimate the film feels especially considering the subject matter. How did you craft the visual style and social media framework of the story?
I grew up heavily influenced by punk. My parents were punks in the late 70s. They always taught me that you can dumpster dive a guitar, teach yourself three chords, and say what you have to say to a large group of people. And say it really loudly. I was also really influenced by the early aughts party photography of Los Angeles. It seems really fun but has a dark side. I don’t know if you remember the Cobrasnake. [Laughs]
I do. [Laughs]
This was also when people were starting to use the new social media platforms in a raw honesty kind of way. Busy Phillips comes to mind. And so I was sort of rolling together all of those influences. I was thinking, I don’t want to make this one of those typical low budget horror movies that looks super slick. It felt disingenuous to me. I wanted to make something that felt like it could be Jane’s party photos. It could be her video diary. It could be something that she live-streamed herself. I wanted us to feel like it’s Jane’s visual point of view, how she’s experiencing the story.
It was just me and Emma filming for the longest time. I love a nice low number on the lens. I really love a 12 and 15 is the most I really want to go. I love that up in your face intimacy so when we were filming I’d pop on these 25s or 24s and I would be up in Emma’s face. It was this really intimate connection between me and the camera and Emma and her performance as Jane. It felt like a live wire. Then Angela [Gulner] came into the mix along with a third producer Kwanza Gooden and it really felt like our voices would have a chance to be heard.
When we moved to the proper shoot days with schedules and craft services and the whole nine, I wanted to preserve that intimacy in some way. We were working really efficiently. When we got to set the actors knew exactly the shot order. They knew when their closeups were and I was just going through them really quickly. But I would try to preserve at least 15 minutes to half an hour to open it up to the cast and the crew to ask, “does anyone else have any ideas? What else can we shoot? What else do we want to capture here?” So I have a lot of little pieces that never even made it in. It knew every person in the room had some personal connection to the story whether or not they were comfortable sharing it with me, so I wanted to create a space where they could contribute artistically to the story being told . Keeping the feeling of collective voices was important to me when we moved into the big shoes.
I definitely think that comes across. It’s not always an easy film to watch given the subject matter, but there is a feeling of warmth and support running through the story.
I notice that though we hear male voices we never really see a male character speak directly to the camera. Why was it important to have women tell this story?
Yeah. [Laughs] I’m just so tired of seeing these stories that are about non-men told by men. They’re about people with uteruses or women or people who don’t have male bodies and I feel like every time I see it in film, and this is a generalization, but it just wrecks me when I see sexual assault depicted in high def, sparing no expense. Then the story from there inevitably follows the guy, the dude whose manhood has been so challenged as to have failed to protect the sanctity of his female body. I would like to go the rest of my life not hearing from the guys about this. Or at least for a couple more years. And so it was just sort of me not wanting to hear from them for a second.
I completely agree. I love that we see women who are not in agreement on everything. While I don’t necessarily see any of the female characters as a “bad guy,” there is one who could be read as more exploitative of Jane. And another who is trying to help but also trying to do her job in the way she’s been told to do it. I think the nuance in allowing the story to be told completely by women just feels so honest.
You know, as an artist you just toil in my case for five years about things that you think are important for no other reason except that you just feel that way. Then to put them up on the screen and let this thing have a life of its own feels so crazy to me. It’s really cool that you’re getting all of that from this story and it means a lot to hear you say that.
Well, I really did love the film. I read it as a rape-revenge story where the monster is the system. Is that the interpretation you intended?
Well, my dream for this movie is if you watch it at home you’ll text your best friend and say, “oh my god I have something I want to talk to you about!” Or that you’ll immediately jump on reddit to find out what people are thinking this is about. Or if you get to see it in a theater you’ll walk out with your friends and be like “oh my god we need to go get a drink and talk about what we think the monster is.” I designed it to be a conversation starter and so I’m hesitant to cement any one reading of the story in a hard and fast way. But I will say your interpretation of it fits very heavily into the background that I brought to the film
Well, I was going to ask what the monster represents. [Laughs] But to preserve the ambiguity, I’d love to hear about the creature design and how you approached depicting this monster.
I never thought we’d get to see a creature. I thought it’d be a POV camera with a shadow that attacks. Because I never thought I’d have money. And then when I had a teeny bit of money I thought, now I need to show the monster. Because what a wank, right? You’re gonna take me on this emotional journey and you’re not even gonna show me this thing? To me it felt like the whole point of the story is how infuriating it feels to not be believed, to not have information. So then to be a filmmaker and be really coy about not showing the monster felt like the same thing I was trying to rally against
So I got this kick-ass puppet maker Chelsea Pickens to create a costume. My friend, Corina Kinnear, who I completely idolize, agreed to design motion to create the monster. She’s a dancer and a choreographer. Her body of work experience spans like 20 years so she has such an in-depth knowledge of her craft. She brought the monster to life. This was before Vantablack was discovered. If Vantablack had been around before the creature design I would have said it’s Vantablack. It’s a black hole that will suck you in. It’s got this gravity in darkness, like death itself. I wanted it to be like the hands of death coming for you. Its creepy limbs would extend out and pull you into its darkness.
When we got to the edit I thought, we really need to throw some VFX on this thing. It’s cool but it doesn’t seem as cool to the rest of the world. That’s when I met Shanalyse Barnett who’s our SFX artist and a super badass chick. She has a day job, but she worked on it on nights and weekends. The problem I was having was that I needed it to have a different silhouette. Shanalyse had this idea that we could change the dimensions of the monster. Sometimes it’s torso would be longer and its legs would be longer other times. It’s a shapeshifter. It escapes the describable. You can’t quite put your finger on it just like Jane can’t quite put her finger on it.
I think the real breakthrough was with the flies. I had an “aha” that we could cover this thing in flies. That’s where I feel like all the elements just really come together. The flies gave me a noise that’s grounded in reality that we can hear. We know the monster’s coming. It also adds this monstrous element to the silhouette and really plays into the metaphor as well. It’s this darkness and it’s this living organism covered in a lot of different voices and a lot of different life forms. This swarming chaos that’s descending.
One of the scenes that I found the most moving is a continuation of the opening scene halfway through the film. Jane is in a really dark place, standing in front of subway tracks. A stranger just reaches out and says, “I believe you” then disappears into the crowd. I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about that scene.
I mean that’s how life works. In my darkest moments it’s always just been that somebody threw me a bone. They didn’t even really know how much I needed it but it changed my life. When you see how Me Too is unfolding on the internet, it’s strangers finding each other and backing each other up. I can imagine that that vote of confidence from someone you’ve never met would go quite far. So I felt like, yeah it could be someone in Jane’s life that reaches out in that moment, but I don’t know. Part of me wanted to play into this unseen community of women and show that even when you feel like you are so alone, we’re here. You just don’t see us. So I wanted a stranger to swoop out of the shadows and throw her a bone, a lifesaving bone.
Do you see this as a Me Too Story?
We were in the edit when Me Too broke. I looked at the editor and Emma and said, “Don’t be mad but I need to shoot more stuff. I need to add social media.” And so I did. I added as much of it as humanly possible. If I had filmed this now I think it would mostly be online, or at least more of it. I went back and added social media to the film, to the world and to the story. Jane was always an influencer so it kind of dovetailed right in there, but I really wanted to show the people taking to the internet to share their stories anonymously connecting with each other. I wanted to give them credit. I wanted to show that I think what they’re doing is really cool and I want the audience to identify with the unseen heroes of the story as well.
One of the things that I really loved is that Jane is not a perfect victim or a perfect survivor. Why was it important to show her as a real person?
Literally nobody is going to be the perfect victim. We live in this crazy Judeo Christian society that puts this weird pressure on women to be perfect and virginal and pure. You name the bullshit and it’s on the list. And no person is going to be that. But every woman knows that that is what you should be to have people on your side. So that’s what you see in a lot of these cases where people go wrong. Their experience is horribly violent. They’re in a hospital. The rape kit that we show is about three minutes of screen time in the film, but in real life it takes six to eight hours to complete. You’re naked the whole time. And then the cop comes and asks if you had anything to drink. Did you sleep with anybody? And you know the right answer. You know what to say to make him believe your story. But then the cop is going to quickly realize that you’re full of shit. And then how will that affect your case? To me it was important to show that we’re all normal people. We’re all human. We can be a fun human-like Jane and it still doesn’t make it ok that this happened.
Was her name intentional?
Oh, yes. I’m also just bad at names. [Laughs] When I watch a film, I’m like, “It’s the guy’s brother. This person.” [Laughs]. But I was thinking, it’s too much to track. There’s already a lot going on. Let’s just call her what she is so that people can make sense of it. And calling her Jane Doe just strips everyone down. Jane’s story could happen to anybody. Jane Doe could be you. That could be the detective on your case. That could be your sister.
Part of what I love about TAKE BACK THE NIGHT is that it’s not subtle. I’m so tired of watching movies that feel like they have to code their message to make it digestible for audiences who don’t want to feel uncomfortable. So I love just seeing the message stated loud and clear. This is real and it’s time we start saying it out loud.
What do you hope for Jane and her sister as their story continues?
Ah! I love this question! I often would joke about the log line film? I would say it’s about a woman who wants a relationship with her sister and gets it. [Laughs] To me that is the heart of the story. What you’re watching happen through all these events is two women finding each other. Jane is desperate for her sister. She has always been desperate for her sister. She’s the one person Jane most wants a connection with. Even though this horrible thing has happened to her, this rather life defining thing. Her whole life has been upended, but now she has the one thing that she truly wanted this whole time. To me there’s a bit of hope there. Something terrible may upend your whole life, but maybe what’s left, what you can reclaim from it is the only thing that really mattered to begin with.
I love that.
I was also so excited to see that you are one of the first recipients of the George A Romero Foundation Fellowship! Can you tell us a little bit about that and what you’re working on now?
Yes! Kay Lynch who runs the Salem Horror Fest is such a remarkable women. She’s this complete powerhouse. I was really excited to get into the festival. I admire Kay and the work she’s doing. I love that the types of typically excluded voices you see in horror have a warm welcome at her festival.
This fellowship is really amazing. The mentor that I have, Mynette Louie, is wildly helpful. I completely idolize her. I think she’s brilliant. She’s an incredible producer and she’s sending me lots of really great advice, especially about my second feature. It’s a ghost story in the realm of The Orphanage, The Others, and Personal Shopper. It’s exploring just how difficult it can be now to carve out your postage stamp of happiness. It’s this creepy, haunted poetic ghost story.
Are you in the early stages of developing that right now?
Yes. I’m scripting it now and then I’ll just take it from there. but you know I made TAKE BACK THE NIGHT pretty much on the fly. I feel like I learned how a car runs by taking an engine apart and putting it back together. Now I know what’s under the hood and what really makes it run. So I think I’ve sort of thrown down the gauntlet for myself. I don’t think there’s any artistic craft harder to complete than a feature film. It’s like a sonnet, but you have to stick your landing. There’s exact criteria that you have to hit. And to me that challenge is really exciting.
TAKE BACK THE NIGHT is now available in select theaters and digital platforms.