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Women in (Short) Horror Month Sinister Seven, Day 5: Debra Markowitz

Sunday, February 24, 2019 | Short Films

This Women in Horror Month I’m celebrating some of the women who focus on short horror films.  Every day from now until the end of the February, I’ll be featuring a new Sinister Seven interview with a different short horror film director to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in the business of giving us big scares in small doses.

In her debut horror short The Last Taxi Driver, Debra Markowitz shows that even during the End of Days we still crave our routines.  In the interview below, however, Markowitz talks about being in a business that’s far from routine and how she’s able to navigate both short and feature length movies. 

What attracts you to the short film medium?  If you’ve also done feature length movies, how do they differ (other than length)?
Although I’ve written features and pilots, shorts are my medium. My brain is just tuned in that way. Get the audience interested, show the tale and end with a bang (tears or a laugh, I’m good with both). You have to be careful not to be too short or too long. Usually too long is the issue, so you have to be prepared to edit out a lot. For the festival circuit, fifteen minutes is good, ten is golden, but sometimes you just have to go longer because the story requires it. The best thing about a short is that you can usually wrap it up in 2 – 3 days. The Waiting Room was a 72 hour film challenge, so we shot that in one day. The Last Taxi Driver was three. Leaving, The Choice and By Blood were two days each. You get to retain the same crew when it’s only a couple of days.

I have one feature in post-production called The Only Woman in the World.  Because it was so low-budget, we needed to work around everyone’s schedules. It took us 6-1/2 months to shoot 20 days. It was painful because we had a rotating crew – four make-up people, six AC/gaffers, and rotating grips. When it’s ready for final editing, I’m going to try like heck to keep it down to 90 minutes. AND, our actors all lost weight for the feature and they had to be very careful with weight, hair length and color etc.Chris Cardona lost 46 lbs, so there would be no way to hide that much of a gain if he got careless.

Edgar Allan Poe believed that a good short story achieves a “singular effect” that elicits one strong emotion from the reader throughout.  Do you believe this to be true of short films?
You carry that emotion through the story. Leaving is very much like that. The Waiting Room also has several ups and downs, but both will have you crying at on point. By Blood is like a roller coaster ride, but the audience expects that after the first few minutes. The Last Taxi Driver is just a lighthearted, zombie comedy, my directorial debut.

A lot of short films have an independent, DIY vibe.  What are some of the benefits and the challenges of making films in those circumstances?
That’s painful (laughs). All of my films have been independent. My feature film will probably cost about the same as my most expensive short, but I haven’t accounted for post work yet. I’ll find the money for that, because it really makes all the difference. It can be DIY, but it doesn’t have to look that way. So many don’t use sound designers, and I just feel that is a must, as is a great editor. They can make or break your film. However, DIY also allows you to make a film, and make it your way, so it’s a balancing act.

Do you deliberately convey your experiences as a woman through your short films, or do you just make a film and whatever comes through is incidental?
I cast my movies much differently since I saw and was on a panel to discuss the documentary, Miss Representation. For whatever reason, before I saw that documentary most of my leads were men. Afterwards, I started more carefully considering the stories I was writing. Couple of Guys needed to remain about the leads (two gay men), but my feature, The Only Woman in the World, has a woman as the main lead. The Only Woman in the World is about an up-and-coming female director and the issues caused in her relationship because of a narcissistic actor she befriends and promotes. When I started writing it, women came out of the woodwork discussing their experiences, personal and business, with sociopathic narcissists. So yes, both the lead being a female director and her having to balance her love relationship with her growing career. I won’t necessarily always have a female lead, but then again, maybe I will.

With countless stories of misogyny affecting feature productions on both studio and independent films alike, do you find you get to bypass some of those issues and have more control on these short film productions?  Are there still hurdles that you face as a woman that men wouldn’t have to deal with?
The great thing about making your own films is that you have to deal with that less, at least on the indie level. I’ve had high level jobs where some men would literally not talk to me. I can’t even imagine that would happen these days, but it hasn’t lately. I’m sure it’s out there, but when you’re the boss making your own work, you don’t see it. Someone disrespects me on my set, they can be replaced in a day. The misogyny I noticed was when my films started winning awards. A group of male filmmakers I’d known for years stopped talking to me. It hurt for a while. Took me a few more films tor realize that their opinions no longer mattered to me. You don’t have to like me, and I don’t have to care that you don’t like me.

What advice would you give a woman looking to make their first short horror film?
Surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. Try to work on other sets first to learn everything you can, even though you’ll likely have to work for free. Consider it your film school. Just do it, but try to be objective. Seek advice, but decide for yourself. And don’t take your friend’s and family’s opinions as gospel. Get objective opinions from filmmakers who know how to make a good film, and learn from them. And the biggest piece of advice, don’t be a jerk. Ever. Even if you’re the boss, you can command respect by earning respect. Yelling just makes you a jerk. And if you end up being really good at what you do, stay humble. You can promote without making the world about you. People will start talking about you if you start succeeding, sadly. See if there is any truth to what they say, and if not, you have to learn to tune it out. And NEVER read the comments. People have become very nasty these days. It’s not necessarily about an objective opinion, it’s about making themselves feel as superior as they can by trying to make everyone else look less than.

What are some short horror films created by women that people should be seeking out (of course, please include your own)?
The Last Taxi Driver, of course! But also Dawn Fields’ Fragile Storm (watch the trailer). And Lindsay Serrano has done her first horror short, Beneath (watch the trailer). She’s going to be a talent to watch!

Keep up with Markowitz and her work via:
Bryan Christopher