Emerging filmmaking talent is something that we at Film Forums will always be interested in covering. Enter award-winning writer-director Elza Kephart, the creative behind tongue-in-cheek horror Slaxx (2020).
This movie, a Shudder original, may well be light-hearted in many ways (killer jeans, really?) but, actually, there’s a much, much deeper message than it initially seams (sorry). Whilst the movie will have you in stitches (also sorry), as we discovered from speaking with Elza Kephart, social criticism in the very genes of this film (final sorry).
In the following interview, Elza Kephart explains how the collaborative writing process worked, what it was like working with a union cast and crew, and provides some advice to aspiring filmmakers.
With Slaxx (2020) a possessed pair of jeans is brought to life to punish the unscrupulous practices of a trendy clothing company. Shipped to the company’s flagship store, Slaxx proceeds to wreak carnage on staff locked in overnight to set up the new collection. The movie features Romane Denis (Slut in a Good Way), Brett Donahue (Private Eyes), Sehar Bhojani (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Stephen Bogaert (The Umbrella Academy). Directed by Elza Kephart (Go in the Wilderness).
Slaxx (2020) is out from 18/03 on Shudder!
FF: Can you give us an insight into your background working in the film industry? How did you get into filmmaking originally?
EK:I was ten when I knew I wanted to become a writer-director. I knew at first from a young age I wanted to be an artist, but it was only upon seeing Star Wars Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future about 10 times that I realised becoming a filmmaker was for me.
We realised it was becoming a critique on the fast fashion industry and corporate fascism. That’s when the script really came together.
Emerson College: film school to learn the craft
I went to film school in directing and screenwriting at Emerson College (Boston) and after college returned to my home town of Montreal, where I started working almost immediately in the film industry.
I started as a personal assistant and did various random jobs over the years, working in the last few years in the art department, which really helped me how to learn to communicate my vision with fellow crew members.
During that time I directed, wrote, co-produced two low budget features, and several shorts, before making Slaxx (2020).
FF: What initially inspired you to write this film? Did it stem from an experience with a bad pair of jeans by any chance?
EK:Ahahaha no! It was actually purely random and very silly. Slaxx (2020) co-writer and co-producer Patricia Gomez Zlatar and I were on a road trip about 20 years ago with a mutual friend, and we were teasing each other about words we hated (as you would on a long road trip).
Slaxx (2020): a horror with an unusual origins story
Our friend hates the word “slacks” and so we started to repeat it over and over to annoy her. It naturally started to sound like a possessed entity; the word that is. Then, Patricia and I soon realised it was, of course, a killer pair of pants. And that’s how the idea got planted in our brain.
Afterwards we wrote a draft that was purely silly, before incorporating Patricia’s retail experience in the story. We wrote one more draft but it still didn’t quite work. There was an element missing.
Years later, when we decided to attack it again, we realised it was becoming a critique on the fast fashion industry and corporate fascism. That’s when the script really came together.
FF: How did you go about getting your film produced?
EK:We presented the project at the Fantasia Frontières Film Market. We did a live pitch that went really well and that’s when producer Anne-Marie Gélinas came on board. She was so excited about the project that she wanted to sign on almost immediately.
Then we barreled through to get our application in a month later at the SODEC, the Quebec film funding agency, and then Telefilm, the Canadian film funding agency.
The project had a good reception and it was accepted almost immediately.
Anne-Marie brought on EP Shaked Berenson who closed some international financing. So it happened pretty quickly.
Writing Slaxx (2020) with Patricia Gomez Zlatar
FF: I noticed that you also co-wrote the film, what was it like working collaboratively on a script? Did you have a process behind this?
EK: It’s different for each script and each collaborator. With Patricia, we had been very involved together writing the initial drafts of Slaxx (2020). With this draft we came up with different story elements together, then I got a flash after watching a documentary about fast fashion called “The True Cost” and sat down to write a draft on my own. I showed it to Patricia and then we went back and forth with her suggestions.
Patricia is great at knowing the horror tropes and what makes horror fans excited, so she led the way on the gore!
I write with another friend and we have a different process. He is much more involved in the particulars; I write the script but we read it together and if he feels a line is off, he’ll tell me and I’ll change it.
For me, writing is like directing ‘in my head’; I need to write what I see; that’s why I’m always the actual “writer”. I literally write the script. Not out of a need for control but if I can’t see it on the page, I can’t direct it.
That’s why it’s important for me to really “write what I see”. And if it’s another person writing it, it won’t be the same.
The project had a good reception and it was accepted almost immediately.
Working with a union cast & crew
FF: Did Slaxx (2020) feel different compared to the other films you have directed in the past and, if so, how?
EK:We had more money! We worked with a union crew and cast, which was great. The level of expertise and professionalism is immediately there. Something that on a lower budget show will take longer because of lack of experience will be solved within five minutes.
That’s not to devalue less experienced or non-union crews, but I definitely felt that things moved very quickly. The cast was so professional, I would give them a note and they would be able to adjust their performance on a dime. It was amazing to see.
Doing a first pass on storyboarding makes a difference
On Slaxx (2020) I was more assured as a director. I had really taken the time to do a first pass at storyboarding and shortlisting on my own, before sharing it with anyone. That way I was sure that my ideas came from my own head.
Before, I would collaborate immediately with the DP, which didn’t give me time to really sort things out in my head. I realised I absolutely need to put down my ideas first. I start to see a visual pattern, and can therefore guide the visual storytelling based on the pattern I’m observing.
Then, after I meet the DP and first AD, we hammer things out. They will often have great suggestions, but it will be based on my initial work.
We worked with a union crew and cast, which was great. The level of expertise and professionalism is immediately there.
Art direction: visual research is important
It’s the same with art direction. I do a lot of visual research on my own, I find patterns, what I’m drawn to visually, and can then analyse it and make “logical” sense of it. That way I can communicate it to my crew and have a reason for these choices, and know when to guide them back to my vision if they veer away.
But I have concrete ways to explain it rather than just saying it’s my intuition. Although sometimes I need to just say it’s my intuition because I can’t explain it at that time…!
FF: I enjoyed how the film explored underlying ideas about consumerism which was told through a very authentic concept. Is there a particular message you hope to share with audiences when they watch this film?
Corporations are ‘the direct cause of our climate and ecological crisis’
EK:Yes!!! That corporations are the truly evil entities of our age. They manipulate us without remorse to make us want things we don’t need. They have no morals, only to their shareholders. They don’t care who they exploit, from the workers to the consumers. They work in cahoots with banks and credits cards, to make people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need.
On Slaxx (2020) I was more assured as a director. I had really taken the time to do a first pass at storyboarding and shortlisting on my own, before sharing it with anyone.
This rampant production, built mostly on exploiting finite resources, is the direct cause of the climate and ecological crisis. Yet corporations don’t seem to care at all that they are the root cause of our approaching extinction. Their CEOs have enough money to avoid the effects of climate change for a while longer than us – but not forever! So the less you can participate in this rotten system, the better.
I would recommend that people really become much more critical of advertising and their impulse to purchase. It is an impulse created in all parts from corporations and the advertising industry (their evil lackeys!).
We must stop consuming needlessly; we must reuse, reduce, and recycle. We must question ourselves as consumers. We have the power to stop buying unnecessary goods; fashion, for example.
There’s enough clothing out there to last us until the end of time! Stop buying clothes you don’t need to fill a void. Buy second hand if possible. Swap, trade, repurpose. Rethinking of yourself as a “consumer” is a truly political act. Refusing to consume is political. Take back your power!
Ingenuity and creativity as problem solving tools
FF: What’s the best piece of advice you have learnt from your experience in the film industry?
EK:To check details three times! Hahaha. Problem solve. Don’t get too worked up if things don’t go as planned.
There’s always a way to work around something unexpected.
I find I get much less stressed about things I can’t control because I learned in film that things will go wrong, but that with some ingenuity and creativity we can always problem solve.
Sometimes, unexpected problems actually make us find better solutions than we had initially planned.
Another thing I would say is that it’s so hard to get a film made; it takes so long. We get so many “no’s” before we get a yes that it’s taught me patience and resilience. To pick myself back up after a rejection and keep going.
FF: What’s your favourite horror film of this century and last?
Oh, that’s a hard one! I think Ravenous (1999), because of its mixture of disturbing tale and social commentary. It’s one of the few films I had to stop because I was so disturbed!
I also love It Follows (2014).
Artwork, introductory words & edited by Richard Williams
Thanks to Exile PR & AMC Networks
Images: As credited.